Hope is not the same as optimism. 

I remembered Daniel from a couple of years ago.   I was walking out of our satellite center located down the street at the VA Community Resource and Referral Center when I saw him. He was walking slowly with his walker and had stopped to catch his breath.  He had just gotten back in town after abandoning his house in South Carolina, afraid that someone was out to get him and take all his money.   Now he was here, all alone and looking for help.

I thought “Oh my goodness, this situation seems rather hopeless. How’s he going to get from one place to the next when he can barely walk 3 feet in front of him?”  I try to be an optimistic person but this situation was seemingly impossible and severely testing the limits of our homeless safety net system.  Yes, housing programs for the homeless  (“permanent supportive housing”) are the primary solution to re-housing individuals like Daniel, but there was the question of what to do with Daniel that moment, like where would he stay that night?  Luckily, NOPD Outreach Worker BB St. Roman, one of the heroines of the homeless in New Orleans, was available to transport him to the Salvation Army where he could receive 7 nights of free shelter ($10/night after point).

While we were waiting for BB to arrive to pick up Daniel from the Rebuild Center, he started to cry uncontrollably. He started to attract attention, especially from Sarah, a young woman who had recently started hanging out at the Center.  She came close to where we sat and then gently asked him if she could give him a hug.  He said sure and then thanked her for the hug.  She said, “Well, I’d like to thank you for that hug.”

So it goes….another beautiful moment experienced at the Rebuild Center one recent Spring day. Staff and volunteers minister to the homeless but they also minister to one another.

 

October 2017

Our job is to provide service, but our work is to be human.

By Katey Lantto, JV 2017-2018

“Hey baby girl, get me my shaver. Please.”

Sure Wayne, here you are. How you doin’?

“Which one for me?”

Hi Mr. Jack! Last one on the left should be open. Don’t go falling asleep on me now today, all right? Ms. Emily says you’re on the list for medical and I don’t want you to miss your appointment.

“Hi sweetie, I’m taking your powder.”

Good morning Miss Stephanie! Could you wait to get it after the shower? Ok, go ahead, I’ll grab it from you when you’re done.

“You got any shavers left?”

You’re getting the last one Kevin! And hey, come see me after lunch: I found a backpack in the back yesterday that I think should work for you.

“Do you have any of those bags left?”

No I’m sorry Ronald, but we have some toothbrushes you could grab and I’ll see if I can find a deodorant.

“Hey got a razor?”

No we just ran out! You gotta get here before 8:30 Percy, you know that. But hey, I’ll see what I can do to hold one for ya tomorrow morning.

“You have any socks?”

Socks are on Thursdays, Michael! But come back to me after lunch and I’ll see what I can do.

“Hey Miss Katey, how you doin’ today?”

~~

The thing about working at the Rebuild Center is that the day-to-day tasks are mostly the same. Showers open at 8, razors run out by 8:30, towels by 11, and then the showers close at 12. There is the daily balancing act of manning the showers, moving laundry, and running to the back to grab more toilet paper and a requested shirt.

However, no day is truly the same, thanks to every person who passes through those front doors. Our guests and our coworkers are different one from the next, and are every day different from the last. After about two months on the job, I still have no way of determining how the day will go, what will happen or who will show up. As I’m learning the ins and the outs of the center, I am also learning peoples’ stories, personalities and quirks, needs and wants, humors and emotions;

Knowing the people we meet every day and acknowledging their complex needs and wants is what providing dignity means in the context of the Harry Tompson Center. In essence, providing dignity and knowing each other is our job, and we work in the space of our community, our offices, and our homes.

However, the most important thing I say during the day is to myself. “This day is not about me.” This day requires us to be present, it requires us to be a friend, it requires us to be available and willing to listen and help where we can, and it absolutely requires us to have a good sense of humor. This day is about who we meet, and our interaction.

The Harry Tompson Center provides direct services, a long but simple list of them, and our days are filled with complex and beautifully frustrating people. Our job is to provide service, but our work is to be human with each person we meet and to allow them to be the same.

 

 

Sweat and Tears.

by Vicki Judice, Executive Director of the Harry Tompson Center

September 2017

That’s what it took 10 years ago when The Rebuild Center was built   Sweat and Tears.  It didn’t come easy.  No one handed us the $1.1 million dollars it took to construct this Center.  We had to ask for it. We had to write grants for it.  We had to raise the money.  We had to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  

Those of you who knew Fr. Harry Tompson knew that he was a man who didn’t waste words and he didn’t waste time.  He saw a need when he was the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.  He saw people who didn’t have a place to go during the day to meet their needs.  So he said, ok let’s get to work.  Let’s set up shop next to the church and meet the needs of the people.  It’s the right thing to do.

Then after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures,  we had to roll up our sleeves again and get to work.  Because we knew it was WORTH it.  All the people who were depending on us were WORTH it.

The spirit of Father Harry Tompson lives on.  We continue to work hard – to sweat and cry tears of sadness or of joy – with our guests each day.  We know their struggle and we CARE about them, truly CARE.

What we have here is not just a place where we hand out food, or let people take showers or tend to their health, NO, we have a place where all are really cared for and where we can work so that everyone can have JUSTICE in their lives:  where all have enough to eat, where all have their medical needs addressed, where all can rest  and get some help to eventually move back into housing of their own.

Each year, we literally help over 5,000 different individuals.  That’s a lot of folks!  How do we do that?  We do that with our supporters first of all, those who give us money to pay the bills.  And we have lots of folks praying for us. How do we do it? We do this with our wonderful and amazing STAFF,  our wonderful and amazing VOLUNTEERS.  And we do it with the help of our guests who are homeless who help each other every day, by sharing what little they have with others or who show the way to get help with others. Our Willing Workers – Hal, Wayne, Perry and others, are now giving back by keeping the Center clean and beautiful.  Guests share their talents in different ways as the new Rebuild Center choir did today.  They were amazing, weren’t they?  Let’s hear it again for them:  Steve, Mary, Mark and Percy and  Choir Director Stephan Natisnak!

All of us together, continuing to work together, to create a community where ALL are cared for with dignity and respect, where all have what they need to survive and carry on. It’s the right thing to do.

So each day, we continue to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We sweat. We cry.  We carry on because this place is worth it.  You are worth it.  Thank you!

Meeting people where they are

By A.J. Golio, JV 2016-2017

March 2017

Over my year spent among the guests of the Harry Tompson Center, I have had many opportunities to glimpse the true nature of service. One of these came in the form of Richard.

One day, Richard approached me with a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie marker and asked that I help him make a sign to fly on St. Charles. Per his instruction, I wrote out, ‘Homeless – Anything,’ and sent him on his way, thinking about how amusing it was that my handwriting would be seen by all the tourists on the streetcar. Then a couple days later, Richard came back, with a new piece of cardboard, and asked that I make him a fresh sign. A few days later, he did it again. And again a couple days later. And again, and again, every two to three days for several months.

Needless to say, I became frustrated. I took significant amounts of time out of my already busy days to write out dozens of signs for this guy. I mean, what the heck kept happening to them? I spent a long time trying to reprimand or warn Richard, saying things like, “This is the absolute last time.” Though I never meant it, and I realized eventually that I could not ‘fix’ Richard – I could only meet him where he was and support him in that way.

The Harry Tompson Center is a place where we do just that, meet people where they are. And I think there’s incredible grace in that. After all, what better example do we have than Jesus, who didn’t require things of those who received his miracles, going so far as to touch the man with leprosy before healing him. What better way is there to follow such amazing examples of service than by supporting the underprivileged in the ways that they require, instead of constantly trying to advise, judge, or ‘fix’? It makes us all feel more human to meet each other on equal ground, and the HTC has provided that for me.

H&P———————————————–

How old are you?

65.

Any medical history?

No, sir.

Anything new?

No.

Any allergies?

How about surgeries?

Not that I know of.

No.

What do you do?

I’m a retired vet,

but since I moved back home again

I work in construction, and

the odd job or two.

And where do you live?

Well doc, d’ya know that bridge?

The one over by River Ridge?

Yes.

Well.

 

He looks away.

 

Do you smoke at all?

Drink alcohol?

Any drugs?

I smoke, but I’d like to quit

and each night I drink a fifth,

usually vodka –

on the streets

it’s better than any sheets –

and yes, sir, from time to time

I take a hit.

Of what?

Mostly heroin, sometimes meth.

Depends on what I can get.

Have you ever been tested

for HepC?

How about HIV?

Yessir, I have HepC,

but you see

the meds, I can’t pay,

I don’t have insurance

that’s why I’m here today.

Do you have any family?

Yes, two kids. But we lost touch.

These days, well

I’m not around people much.

I’m sorry.

 

I reach over and take his hand.

His lips tremble.

He starts to stand.

 

I don’t mean to cry

 

He says as he squeezes shut his eyes.

 

It’s just been a while since

some-

since someone’s-

it’s just been awhile

y’know?

 

My speech is thick

but I manage to smile.

 

It was good to meet you

 

I swallow and say.

 

We’ll see you back next Thursday.

 

He moves for the door,

the one he came in

just 30 minutes before

with his clothes too big, or

himself too thin.

I watch him:

How old are you?

65.

Same as my dad, who

he could almost be,

if not for a different H&P.

 

Marc Beuttler is a third year medical student at LSU who plans to pursue a residency in Internal Medicine. His poem “H&P” will appear in the summer 2017 issue of The Pharos. 

 

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“It is like an oasis in the middle of our busy lives where God is very easy to find.”

Reflections from Jesuit Novice Marco Antonio Machado

As a Jesuit Novice, we are sent to experience different ministries, and for me working at Harry Tompson Center is one of them. I did not know what to expect before working here. I knew I was going to do meaningful work. I knew I was going to provide a moment of dignity to the homeless by cleaning showers and helping translate with Spanish. I also knew that I would get to know the stories of  people who came looking for help.

Just before starting to work at HTC, I continuously had in my mind a very particular Bible passage: Matthew 25: 31 – 46. In this very strong passage Jesus is talking about the final judgement, and He says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” I had the expectation that my weeks working here would be very demanding, and I would have to embrace my responsibilities like Jesus embraced his cross. I thought I would have to deal with insults, negative attitudes, very dirty showers, etc. My experience has been completely different. And don’t get me wrong, it is demanding and I finish tired every day, and sometimes I meet a person who is having a bad day. However, it has been an amazing and humbling experience where I find joy everyday by serving the least of my brothers. I always go home very satisfied knowing that I did something important for someone.

I thought that the most powerful experience for me would be to work as if I was working for Christ himself.  In addition to that, I have found God also in another much stronger and subtle way. There is one person who comes every day. He is very loud  but pleasant. His presence definitely lightens up the mood at The Rebuild Center. His name is Wayne. Seeing him speaking, helping others, and singing is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced while serving others. His joy comes from within. During a recent outing at the annual French Quarter Festival, I noticed a group of young musicians in the street performing very lively music. And there he was, the loudest and happiest man who comes to the Rebuild Center for help, staring and enjoying the music in complete wonder. It was such a powerful experience for me. I did not expect to see him, especially being so quiet. He was enjoying the music so much. He was so quiet. It was definitely the strongest memory I have of my experience working here. I remembered immediately the passage of 1 Kings 19, 11 – 13 because I had an experience of God in a much unexpected way. In this passage Elijah was looking for God in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire, but found Him in a tiny whispering sound. The same way, I found God in that peaceful image of Wayne relishing the music in the streets.

I have found God at every square feet of the Rebuild Center. I have found Him in by helping the least of my brothers (and sisters), I have found him in a quiet Wayne relishing music in the streets, and most definitely I have found Him in all the volunteers and staff of the Rebuild Center serving the least of my brothers and sisters. If you want to see the world being transformed, you should come and work for a few days in the Rebuild Center. It is like an oasis in the middle of our busy lives where God is very easy to find.

 

jessica

“There is a harmony that exists in the space that is the Rebuild Center.”

Jessica Lovell

My work day starts when I round the corner of the parking lot and head towards the front entrance of the Rebuild Center. There, waiting for the doors to open at 8 am, is a line of men and women, somedays longer than others. A series of ‘Good Mornings’ and other ‘Hello’s’ take place as I make my way to the entrance. The crowd thickens approaching the front doors and, inevitably, one of our guests steps in to clear a path and push me (in my wheelchair) through the crowd into the Center and all the way up the ramp, then heads back out front to wait until 8am with the rest of the guests.

Since I have been at the Harry Tompson Center I have been so humbled by the generosity of our guests as people who have so little yet graciously give so much. Each day at the Rebuild Center I witness acts of selflessness and compassion between people- guests, staff, and volunteers alike. It is not uncommon for perfect strangers to advocate on behalf of their neighbor simply based on an understanding of the difficulties of homelessness and the complications that it causes. I feel like I have learned from so many to be a better person and to have a greater appreciation for humanity.

An example I want to share, not uncommon at the Center: on one of the first very cold days of the year, we were giving out winter hats just after lunch. After the last hat was given out a guy walked up and asked for one but was sadly told there were no more. Another homeless gentleman took the hat he was just given off of his head and gave it to the stranger standing in front of him knowing the temperature would fall to the 30’s at night. Sincere gratitude and thanks were returned in favor and I went off to try and scrounge up another hat, finding a scarf instead.

I like to think of the Center as imperfectly beautiful, unique, and balanced.  There is a harmony that exists in the space that is the Rebuild Center. An abundance of acceptance and love (though often tough love) flows there and helps create an atmosphere which allows people to feel safe and seen. The high regard and appreciation that guests feel for the Rebuild Center, the staff, and the volunteers makes our job have immense purpose and meaning.

The flip side of this is also a reality. Many days at the Center can be a challenge, both emotionally and mentally. There is never a shortage of sad stories and sometimes seemingly unsolvable problems. Yet even on these days, Charlie shows up with a new ‘Everybody Loves Charlie’ drawing to hang in your office; Wayne shows up (you know he is in the building because you can hear his voice from inside) and he gifts you with laughter and love; Terry walks all the way to the Center on the day of your birthday just to wish you a Happy Birthday; and always there is someone who says ‘Thank You’…for saying hello, smiling, being kind, listening, being helpful, or just understanding during these difficult days. On this note I cannot leave out the incredibly loving, caring, and simply amazing people that I work with. They truly build my spirits (and others’) and make me a better person. There exists a small but mighty family at the Rebuild Center and I am both grateful and proud to be a part of it!

 

fullsizer

“To Remember”

David is a former HTC guest who spoke at the memorial service held on December 7 at St. Joseph’s church for the homeless who have died on the streets of New Orleans in 2016. The service was sponsored by the HTC and others, and are proud of David for his part. This is the written copy of his speech.

“Good evening. I appreciate being asked to speak to all of you tonight about what it’s like to be living homeless on the streets of New Orleans.

I’m born and raised in New Orleans but unfortunate family circumstances after the death of my parents put me on the streets.

In my life it seems I have found and stepped into many potholes – although not always intentionally!

The time when I was homeless spanned over 12 months and was a
very difficult time for me.  Even though I have held various jobs over the years, having epilepsy makes it especially difficult to maintain a job since there is no warning when a seizure might occur.

As you can imagine, this made it doubly hard to live outside.  I was very cautious where I would lay my head and wondered if the concrete might trigger another seizure.

You have to face a lot of obstacles when living on the street.

Things were always getting stolen and I would have to figure out how to replace those items such as my ID cards, all my medical cards, medicine and other important papers.

Living on the streets was actually life-threatening.  There were many nights when I slept with only one eye open because of what might happen when I was sleeping.   I was always very conscious of my safety.

The streets are unforgiving and the climate is not something you can always predict, so when it rained, I often had to leave my spot to find a dry space to sleep.

Sometimes, the insensitivity of others discouraged me and was embarrassing.  Like the times when people wouldn’t look at me as they walked past me and would give me the cold shoulder, or worse, would intentionally splash water on me as they drove or walked past me.

I am very grateful to those who took the time and effort to help me move off the streets into my own apartment which I have been in now for a little over 2 months.

I’ve learned a lot over the past year through this experience.  My faith has been strengthened.   The experience doesn’t hurt anymore, so it has helped me to have faith that God is watching out for me.  The hardest part was letting go and letting God be in control– trying to be in control while on streets was really difficult.

It hurts me that some of the people that I was with out there actually died last year and didn’t survive.  Some of them were the ones who encouraged me not to give up.   I am grateful that they are being remembered by all of you tonight —  by people who didn’t even know them .

Even though I am blessed to have come OFF the street, I have a lot of empathy for those still suffering out there and would like to do anything possible to help them find housing and shelter. I am involved with the Tiny House project which aims to build more small houses for the homeless.

I have been delivered from all those potholes I fell into and I’d like to help others avoid them too!

Thank you for coming tonight to do something that is very important – TO REMEMBER those we have lost.”

 

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“No One Has Ever Asked Me About Housing Before.

Written by Kip Barard, Program Director

In the nearly three years I have worked at the Harry Tompson Center, I saw the same sight at least once a week when arriving to work- Lester, one of our guests, would be sleeping behind St. Joseph’s Church. I would try to engage and talk to him whenever I could, but he was always too intoxicated to stand or engage in a meaningful conversation. When I would speak to him, he would use the wall to hold himself up and inevitably would slouch or stumble back down to the ground. He tended to sleep just about every day until around noon and then disappear, but then would reappear the next morning intoxicated once again. For years we repeated the same pattern, though he hardly ever came inside the Rebuild Center.

On April 4, I arrived at the Center for work and found Lester actually awake, standing and walking straight without the assistance of the wall. Amazed, my first thought was that I could finally have a coherent conversation with him, and hopefully he might even be interested in getting housed. I asked him if he had a minute to come with me into the HTC and talk. He agreed, and I was able to discuss housing options with him. He seemed a little surprised about the whole process. He told me, “No one has ever asked me about housing before.”

After a good bit of work, we were able to get him into a Permanent Supportive Housing unit at the UNITY-administered Sacred Heart Apartments where he has been living now for six weeks. And even more good news! His Case Manager informed me recently that Lester has done something amazing- he has been sober for 10 days in a row- all of his own accord. Lester decided to quit drinking after getting housed!

 

 

May 2016

Emily

“Thank You for Saying Yes.”

Written by Emily Bussen, Assistant Director

It’s 12:35pm. I am looking forward to finally sitting at my desk and eating my turkey and cheese sandwich before lunch duty in 15 minutes. I am a little extra tired because we were short handed today and I had to fill in on the showers. I wanted to run to the back real quick to grab some more cough drops to put in a goodie bag for a guest, Sam, that was hopping on the train the next day. He has asked for cough drops many times over the past several months as well as chap stick every now and then. We wanted to put together a little farewell gift. Sam has been such a joy to see everyday but we are all happy he is finally going to Colorado to live with his brother.

As I am making my way to my office, I get stopped by Damien. He asked if I have a glucometer in my office, but I do not. All I can think about is sitting down and eating my sandwich. As awful as it sounds, I was tempted to tell him to see me after lunch. I decide I can take him over to the medical office because I know there is a machine there. He checks his sugar. It was a little high, but not bad. I gave him a bottle water and told him to drink it. We left out and Damien said, “Everybody always tells me ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ Well you can and you do. Thank you.” This is coming from a 6’3” 280 lbs man that is not known for giving compliments. I tell him thank you. Moments like that are what keep me going day in and day out. People like Sam and Damien are what make every minute here at the HTC so rewarding.

 

March 2016

vickiheart

“Hop to it!”

Written by Vicki Judice

Dear Friends,

I think we can all agree that Father Harry Tompson was a man of action.  Many recall his inspirational homilies which encouraged us to stop wondering about things and just “HOP TO IT!”  Leading by example, Father Harry hopped  from one issue to another, from one person in need to the next – always on the lookout for how he could do more, love more, serve more, and  recruit more helpers in the overall mission of loving God and our neighbor.

We are proud of the work we do at the Harry Tompson Center. In collaboration with our partners at the Rebuild Center and the V.A. Community Resource and Referral Center, we provided services to over 5,000 homeless individuals in 2015.  Our staff of 10 employees and our volunteer team of 30 work hard to deliver quality services to those who look to us for hope and healing. Your support of the Harry at the Hop Gala we will keep us “hopping along” in search of the next person who needs our love and attention. Thank you so much!

vicki's signature

Vicki Judice

Executive Director

Harry Tompson Center

 

February 2016

mikecropped

 

“Oh Christmas Twig.”

Written by Mike Lank, Jesuit Volunteer

The holidays are often focused around connection and a sense of belonging. A little extra time with our families. Making that phone call we haven’t gotten around to. Unfortunately, the holidays can also lead to feeling of disconnect and overwhelm. Having recently moved halfway across the country from friends and family, I felt rush acutely this year.

One of the bright moments of the holiday season was when one of the regulars came in one morning singing Christmas music under his breath. He came in right at the morning rush and I didn’t have a chance to hear him clearly the first time around. I simply noticed he was in high spirits and really gave off positive energy to the space.

A little later when the center had quieted down, Tim came up to the sign in desk singing his own take on a classic “Oh, Christmas Twig.”  He, then, started showing me the decorating that he and some others under the bridge had done. Someone had found a spindly, three foot branch from a Christmas tree and brought it to the camp. All of a sudden, there is a communal effort to put together a little tree. Someone else finds a big gift box that is made into the tree stand. The beads and light-up necklaces that abound in this city spring forth onto this tree.

“It’s a turning into a regular, old Charlie Brown Christmas tree!” he said. The one thing he thought they needed was a single, big ornament; this way it would flop over just like in the movie. He asked me if I knew where he could get one and I didn’t. But the rest of the day this interaction stuck with me, so I poked around and managed to scrounge one up. When he came back at the end of the day, I had it ready for him. Out of all the things we provided that day, I think that one ornament went the furthest in building a sense of community and belonging.

 

December 2016

hal at service

“Being Homeless.  Having a Home.”

Written by Hal Jefferson, formerly homeless

Being homeless, sleeping under freeways, parks, empty buildings. Watching people fight over cardboard boxes spots under the bridge as though they were paying mortgages on them, being assaulted twice myself. My place is a five star suite to me. No more standing in line for everything. Showers, to eat, wondering if your name will be called to get in the shelters first of all. Come on man, I’m in control of it all now. Meals are great, being the good cook I am, clean bathroom, bed, kitchen, even a backyard to play in. Living on the street for a couple years taught me a whole lot about myself. I had jobs, but nowhere to call home. Working and sleeping on the street is a big challenge. You cannot tell peoples to be quiet, I have to go to work tomorrow. It never works. Believe me, it is not a job you go apply for. This is just life happening, so you learn to fight for it and not squander it, living under a cloud of impending doom. You learn that life is not always fair, bad things happen to good people. You learn that It’s truly and given that we receive. You stop maneuvering your life really as a consumer, looking for your next fix.

You start distinguishing the differences between guilt and responsibility, honesty, and integrity. They are not the outdated ideals of a bygone era, but the mortar that holds us together. The foundation upon which you must build your life. Stop personalizing things, God’s not punishing you or failing to answer your prayers. So slowly you begin to take responsibility for yourself. Make a promise to the man in the mirror, and make it a point to keep smiling. Trusting and stay open to every wonderful possibility. Finally, with courage in your heart, and God by your side, you take a stand a deep breath, and begin to design you want to live as best you can.

If you still need help, try this: love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy or boast. It is not proud, it does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking, it is not easy angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love has no delight in evil, but rejoices with truth. It always protects, always trusts, always preserves. Love never fails. Try it. I did, thank God. Bless you all.

 

 

June 2015

under the bridge

 

“Livin’ it up? Under the Bridge.”   

Written by Linda Penny, Guest

Note:  We asked Ms. Penny to write about her experiences living on the street for our website Blog.  She currently lives under a nearby overpass. 

It seems the way God has maneuvered me into this horrifying and offtimes ludicrous situation was way too easy for Him.  I can’t figure out why I haven’t fought Him tooth and nail this time, but I still say, “Homeless in NOLA is a whole lot better than my second marriage.”

With most people out here the common factor is fear.   Will I get my I.D. replaced? Find a room?  Go hungry tonight?  Will someone steal all my #+%!! again?   Will one of those nut jobs wanna fight? Hey man, can I get a cigarette?  Only eleven days ‘till check day.  The closer to the first of the month, the scarecer the cigarette butts on the ground.  Someone else got to’em first. Gosh darn, dude. I don’t know how I’ve managed to never go without while having no income and not asking for anything.  Well, of course I know, just like everybody else, the other common factor.The Lord is with us. And so are a whole bunch of really good people who probably need a long rest.Thanks, y’all.  It’s an adventure of a lifetime.  So……night guys, see ya tomorrow.

 

By Bailey Warfield

 

Throughout my year as a Jesuit Volunteer at the Harry Tompson Rebuild Center, I’ve come to understand the world in a much different light- in ways that college and other post-graduate positions cannot provide. Peers, parents, and professors alike always warn about the ‘real-world,’ a realm that graduates enter into where confusion, insecurities, and instabilities linger for those who are unprepared for what awaits them. However, if my experience as a JV at the Rebuild Center has taught me anything about the “real-world,” it was that the ‘real-world’ is a raw, vulgar, and lonely state- Yet filled with hope, optimism, and love. Such a dichotomy tends to make us appreciate everything that was previously taken for granted, but also a sense of guilt for the things that some of us are gracious enough to receive.  Although my duties at the Harry Tompson Center are to provide showers and toiletries for those who wish to receive services, (I like to consider myself a glorified Janitor) this experience has most importantly taught me so much about people finding hope and prosperity in the most desolate of situations.

In the short year that I spent at the Rebuild Center, there were many guests whom have had a significant impact on my life- whether it was David teaching me how to change and fix a flat bicycle tire, Michael who taught me how to play and win chess, or Floyd, who after many long hours together, taught me the value and virtue of patience. Every face that came through the doors of the doors to the Rebuild Center offered something special and added value to my experience. So often the media and other outlets place a negative stigma on the face of homelessness, and without stepping outside of our own comfort zones- to be with the people whom we serve within the margins of society, we can fall prey to believing this stigma. However, after spending a year alongside the poor and marginalized, I’ve realized that every person is still, at the core, trying to find love and someone who will listen to them- Something that has been overshadowed by the cut-throat, materialistic world in which we live today. Mistakes are made and wrong paths are taken, but that does not negate or limit the full potential that we have- it only makes us stronger.

After seeing a guest’s sign along the highway that says, “Homeless, not Helpless,” I find that this claim cannot ring truer, just because I’ve witnessed adversity stacking against people- brick walls stymieing any progress that was once made- only to lose it all and start over again. I seems oddly symbolic to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed for eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have the rock fall all the way down the mountain once he reached the top. Likewise, our guest must jump through hoops and bounds in order to survive and escape their predicament. Many guests have told me that the only reason that they keep trying is for the hope that something better will eventually come. Patience is key while waiting for these signs of change. But, like Sisyphus, what seems like a hopeless situation always has room for hope of a new tomorrow and better chances.

One success story that I’ll bring with me after my journey is Vu’s transformation. A man raised in Vietnam, only to flee as a refugee to a safer world, Vu spent over nine years homeless in the United States. He would go city to city, finding emergency shelters where he could work for an extra plate of food. His perseverance never stopped, even though adversity followed him everywhere he went. Knowing very little English, very little about the American political and justice system, and being a single amputee after losing his left arm in a bus accident- Vu has been put through the ringer. However, you would never know what he’ endured when you him walk into a room, radiating it with his toothless smile. After spending nine years homeless, he was finally put into permanent supportive housing, and the way he shows his appreciation is to come to the Rebuild Center every day to volunteer his time and efforts. “I like to help people, you good people over here,” is always his response when I express my gratitude for all of his help. Someone who is so happy to be alive and willing to help others, especially facing the challenges that he faces on a daily basis, is inspiring not only to me, but to other guests who visit the Center as well. His life philosophy does not see the world as unfair, but rather, he embraces every day and challenge for what it is, while finding joy and goodness in a harsh reality.

It is so hard to put into words the experience and transformation that I’ve seen in myself as a volunteer at the Rebuild Center this past year. It appears that every problem I have is only a mere trifle in comparison to what others have endured and still endure, but I’ve learned to embrace these challenges as learning experiences to push and better myself. Being with and for other people I the mission that the Jesuit Volunteer Corps practices, which I believe is a catalyst in this transformation process that still instills a new energy and rejuvenation for life. There are no exact words or phrases to describe my JVC experience, but there are memories and people who have shaped me along the way. Meting people when they are at the worst point in their lives is difficult to relate and empathize, but my job is made worthwhile and enlightening when they find and share happiness, joy, and gratitude in the few things they have. We are all suffering a different battle- we all want someone to trust and love who wills stand and listen to us throughout life’s journey. Speak gently, listen closely, and open your heart and mind to a new day and opportunity. You’ll never know how much your presence is a blessing for someone else.

Through the Lint Trap:

Amidst the morning laundry rush down at the Harry Tompson Center’s Satellite Site, my staff and I often hear our guests’ stories in snippets. As we dive in and out of the thick crowd – running to look things up for people, grab extra razors, find Band-Aids, and clean bathrooms – good news and bad news fly around us. Stanley, a new guest, has a job interview, so we squeeze him on the already-full laundry list. Darren, a veteran, was recently housed in an unfurnished apartment, so we see if the supply room has extra towels and shower curtains. Amanda’s partner is in the hospital, so we send her on her way with two sandwiches, well wishes, and the promise to pray.

After a few hours, the rush dies down, and listening becomes easier. Guests still wander in and out all day, and we talk while they wait for a shower or rest their feet. Hearing these stories has been the best part of my work as a Jesuit Volunteer with the Center thus far. I have been given the gift of listening in spades this year, and I am doing my best to figure out ways that I can continue this listening even when I will be removed from direct contact with many of my clients. How will I listen to them and others facing homelessness when my time with the Harry Tompson Center has ended and I find myself driving or walking by these people, instead of spending all day with them?

I see the beginnings of this listening in many places. One place has been, oddly enough, through the lint trap. Our huge, industrial dryers often tumble as many as 250 different guests’ clothing each week. With this many loads being done, a few things inevitably get left behind. A guitar pick: I did not know John was a musician, but when I return the pick to him, we chat about the street corners he plays on. A baby sock: Ashley shares that she actually lost her child to a miscarriage while homeless but has kept the socks she had bought for her child as a reminder. A rosary: Kevin asks for it before I find it in the lint trap, saying he has had it for years. Sometimes no one claims the little items left behind (more guitar picks, small toys, Mardi Gras doubloons, receipts), so I am left to guess who they might belong to. But I try to let them tell a story of homelessness that is more rich and varied than I otherwise might have known.

Those experiencing homelessness are musicians, have children, buy things, go to parades, and, in general, live lives worth knowing. While I have clearly seen the need for work toward ending homelessness, I have also seen the complexity of humans living on the streets and it has made me all the more determined to work alongside them. I hope I continue seeing these things in the months to come – the signs that people hold asking for change that I pass near the highway tell only a very small part of the story of homelessness. The tattoos, the pictures kept in wallets, and the worn shoes tell stories that let me know what kind of help those experiencing homeless might need most – and they also invite me to just listen.

-Angela Owczarek is currently serving with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at the Harry Tompson Center.

A Christmas Miracle

By Vicki Judice

December 19, 2014  –  It was a very cold and rainy day last Friday, the first of many this winter.   We decided to distribute many of the gloves and hats we had recently received from parishioners of Immaculate Conception Parish as part of their  Giving Tree Project.  Our guests were most grateful to receive a bit of extra warmth for the cold night ahead.

In the midst of the glove/hat distribution- frenzy, two men appeared suddenly and asked if we had any need for sleeping mats.  One of the men was Rev. David Crosby,  Pastor of First Baptist New Orleans Church, who is well known for his moving editorials in the Times-Picayune urging Christian congregations to do more for the poor and homeless.  He and a church staff member named Matt  then unloaded 14 sleeping mats in the middle of a downpour.  The mats were very unique in that they had been creatively woven using plastic recycled bags!   We quickly distributed the mats out to 14 lucky guests who were thrilled to have a soft cushion to use between their blankets and the hard ground.

Before Rev. Crosby left, he asked if there was anything else we needed. Looking out into the heavy rain, I mentioned that we usually didn’t receive donations of ponchos that were particularly helpful on days like this one.  He said he would see what he could do.

Not 2  hours later, Rev. Crosby showed up again at the Center with 2 large boxes full of over 300 ponchos!  He shrugged and said he happened to have some extras at his church.  We quickly gave out as many as we could before we closed our doors for the day, feeling good that we were able to provide a bit of cover for people as they walked out into the wet sidewalk, looking for shelter for the evening.

We are grateful to have partners such as Rev. Crosby, Matt and First Baptist New Orleans who have answered the call to serve the poor and homeless in our midst.  They worked a Christmas miracle today.

-Vicki Judice is the Executive Director of the Harry Tompson Center.

 

My Job is to Know Their Names

An essay by volunteer Liam Fitzgerald

I walk in and see the mural of water on the wall: The Great Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the Baptism of Jesus, and Hurricane Katrina. Waters of rebirth. I see dozens of people, mostly men, all around, greeting each other, greeting me, making appointments, taking care of business. Off to my left I hear names being called. A few names every few minutes. Everyone pauses to listen. “Oscar Brown.” A sixty-year-old man in a baseball cap smiles and strolls off to take his turn. The buzz of conversation picks back up. It is sticky and hot – a typical New Orleans summer day. We are outside, but shaded. I do not really mind the heat; it is comforting in a way. Palm trees and vines grow in planters all around. It feels like an oasis from the asphalt of the city. A wooden deck connects six brown trailers.

This is the Rebuild Center. Oscar and the other men and women are homeless. At the Center they are called guests. Volunteers call their names from lists to take showers, get their laundry done, see a doctor, or make phone calls in the various trailers that surround a central courtyard. Why fresh air and plants? Calm is the focus of the Center’s outdoor design. It is a new way of serving the homeless, and I am a part of it.

Too old for summer camp and too young for a job, I began volunteering at the Rebuild Center when I was fifteen. I felt good about what I was doing. Felt important. The work was simple, and there was no obligation to go. Most often I would call out names from either the list for the showers or the list for the phones. It would get hectic at times, but usually things were relaxed. Guests would often come up to me during the lulls just to talk, but I had a hard time opening up. I could not handle the pressure of talking to a stranger, especially a homeless one. I was perfectly content with sticking to my lists to avoid conversation. To avoid human contact – just as I would have had I seen one of the guests looking for a buck on the street.

The next summer I went back for more. The sense of social justice my parents instilled in me overcame my typical sixteen-year-old awkwardness. I was more adult and had spent enough time at the Center to overcome the initial discomfort I had felt. The calm of the Center had worked on me as well. I began to connect with the guests. The conversations I once found so uncomfortable became what I looked forward to the most. I would not just hand the guests the soap or the razor they had asked for. I would talk with them. Through these conversations I made connections and friendships. I learned where my friends slept, whether it was under the highway, in a homeless shelter, or on the floor of an apartment recently obtained.

Last summer I went back to my home, the Rebuild Center. I had to go. I had other obligations; I ran in the mornings and earned money at an ice cream shop in the evenings, but this was my summer job. This was where I belonged. Between the lists and my conversations with the guests, I had one over-arching job at the Center. My job was to know their names.

My name is Liam Fitzgerald and my friends’ names are Oscar Brown, Oscar White, Starlit Sharrow, and Steadman Wright. They are not just anonymous faces on the street. They are not just “homeless people.” They are individuals, and I connect with them. I have a calling. My job is to know their names.

-Liam Fitzgerald is a former volunteer of the Harry Tompson Center.

Reflection on Year of Service

By Sarah McIlvred

I think my friends and family might have thought I was a little bit crazy when I told them I would be using my college degree to spend a year at the Harry Tompson Center cleaning showers and washing towels. It is sort of expected that we focus on the long-term goals, the ultimate destination of our lives. So to many, a year as a Jesuit Volunteer in New Orleans just looks like a pause or intermission in the real plan of my life. “Yes, but what do you want to do with your life?”

The thing is, this is what I want to do. At least right now, at this moment. Because the last eleven months I have spent washing towels, cleaning showers, fetching various hygiene items, and in general running around sweaty and gross, have opened my eyes up to a whole new way of being in the world. Showers and laundry – those just give me an excuse for being here. What I really do though, my real job, is watch and participate in the exchange of love that happens inside of these gates.

It happens in small ways and it happens in radical ways.

I have seen the light that turns on in someone’s eyes when they get finally get a house after months or years of struggling on the streets.

I have stood side-by-side in moments of shared grief and loss, comforting and being comforted.

I have laughed and sang silly songs with people I would have probably been afraid of two years ago.

I have been there to see a man who never interacts with anyone sit down and play a game of Yahtzee with a huge smile on his face.

And I have witnessed the strength of human compassion as individuals in the midst of their own struggles take a moment to lift up another who is in need or to offer the staff kind words of love and encouragement.

Unconditional love changes people. That is what I take away from each day here. This year has not been about making strategic career moves or earning a salary or figuring out “the plan.” It has been entirely about becoming the kind of a person who can recognize love, joy, and beauty in the most unexpected places and who seeks to give those things where they are most desperately needed.

Yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing.

-Sarah is a former Jesuit Volunteer.