After just recently celebrating my 2nd anniversary of working for the Harry Tompson Center, I reflected on the services that I have been able to bless our clients with. My goal every day is to give any client I can the feeling of HOPE.

When clients are sleeping in shelters, under bridges, and on park benches day after day, it can diminish any small amount of hope that they may have. Giving them a shower, washing their clothes, or maybe just inviting them in the office so they can release some frustrations can be what the need at the moment to make their journey a little easier. Connecting with the client starting with the initial intake is so important, especially when I am working on establishing trust on both ends. The housing process could be complicated with the requirements and rules that we have to abide by. Collecting homeless documentation can be one of the hardest things to accomplish. Shelters have limited nights that the clients can stay there, and spending nights on the streets can be dangerous. Many clients have to move around to try and stay safe.

During my first couple of months of working with The Harry Tompson Center, I met a gentleman by the name of Ernest Melville. He was an established client from the previous case manager before me and also had been housed previously by UNITY. The most significant issues we encountered were minimal documentation, and if he started to feel discouraged, he would disappear for weeks at a time. Some clients won’t show any interest in going through the process of housing- but my heart told me that although Mr. Earnest was showing resistance, I shouldn’t give up on him. Months passed, and Mr. Earnest showed back up and had a lot of documents needed for the housing applications!

I was so excited, I didn’t waste any time to begin his application process. After the application was submitted, another roadblock hit us- His mental diagnosis wasn’t severe as it needed to be for housing. I never gave up, though, and I showed up at every meeting to make sure I was able to advocate for Mr. Earnest. Over time, slowly but surely he was getting smaller in size, and a cough from just a common cold became worse and worse.

After months of advocating, I was finally able to get Mr. Earnest a housing referral through Depaul USA! This agency is one of our community partners at the Rebuild Center. After a couple of weeks, Mr. Earnest had moved into his apartment, but he wasn’t staying there much.

Turns out, he was in and out of the hospital because what we thought was just a nasty cough from a cold was actually stage 4 lung cancer. After being admitted into UMC Hospital for treatment, the Depaul staff and I made sure we saw Mr. Earnest as much as we could. For weeks we saw him every day. The smile that would come on his face when I would walk through the door made me feel like I was helping just a little of the pain to leave him and that I was making his journey just a little easier. By this time, he had a new caseworker, and his file was “closed” within my caseload. However, he always made sure he told me, “You’re always going to be my caseworker”!

As his condition worsened, he left the hospital and entered into a Hospice facility. After a few weeks, he progressed more and more to the end. As a service professional, I tried not to attach myself emotionally, but at the end of the day, I am still human. On my last visit, it was two days after his birthday. He was in the actively dying stage.

I was able to sit there for about 3 minutes before I just had to walk out because it became too much. About 2 hours after I left, we received the news that he had passed away. This was my first time going through the loss of a client, and it was harder than anything I could imagine. With support from the Rebuild staff, I was able to see the positive piece in this process. Although I will never see Mr. Earnest walk through my office door or hear his voice again, I will always have a place in my heart for him.

I can sleep at night knowing I did everything I could to get him housed, so he wasn’t suffering on the streets for his last few months. He was not alone during his final days, he was surrounded by love from all of us at the Rebuild Center and his family. Our job isn’t easy but making a difference in as many lives as we can is what we are here for. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to get to do what I love every day.

 

A JV’s Reflection

By Mike O’Connell

May 2019

As both a Catholic and as a Jesuit Volunteer, I am asked to be a responsible steward of the earth. However, mainstream American culture seems more and more concerned with consumerism and accumulation of material items. The danger of such a culture, and the behaviors that it encourages, is that we focus only on our own easy, immediate happiness. We forget that a meaningful, happy, flourishing life must be about a cause greater than ourselves: it must be lived for others. JVC is a counter-cultural approach to living life. In the Jesuit Volunteer Corps formation program, volunteers are asked to build a greater awareness of this materialism, to understand the lives of those we accompany, and to evaluate how our choices impact the entire ecology of the human race.

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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.