A JV’s Reflection
By Mike O’Connell
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.
Whereas in mainstream American culture, instead of caring for our neighbors, we only interact with them when we want or need something. Instead of giving someone experiencing homeless our spare change, we rationalize that the person experiencing homelessness would waste the money on alcohol—and then we keep the money for our own beer. Instead of recognizing the inherent dignity of each person, we deem others unworthy of housing, healthcare, or education.
At my placement site, the Rebuild Center, the culture runs opposite of such American individualism. Imagine that you have no place to stay at night. Imagine that you have nothing left except for the clothes that you slept in. Imagine that you can only shower on weekdays, between 8am and noon, and that you must wait for your name to be called. And imagine that you have no clean clothes to change into after your shower. For many of the Rebuild Center’s guests, these imaginations are a reality. At the Center, the guests are offered meals, showers, a restroom, or to simply be—at no cost.
Despite the Rebuild Center guests having very few personal belongings to share, they often donate their excess items to be given to others. Thus far, I have received socks, towels, deodorant, and soap from guests for others in need. Like the widow’s offering (Mark 12:41-44), the guests give out of their poverty. Moreover, as the Bible calls all Christians to be, these guests act as responsible stewards of the earth.
At mass this week, I witnessed a Rebuild Center guest make an offering. Imagine that despite having so little, you are willing to give what you do have to your Church or community. The hardest part of my day is learning the lessons that the guests teach about resiliency, about responsible stewardship, and about community—and then implementing them into my own life as a Jesuit Volunteer.
“I tried to told ya but you didn’t want heard me”-
by Juston Winfield at the 2018 Interfaith Memorial Service for the Homeless.
“I, Juston Winfield, was homeless for 4 years and the Rebuild/ Harry Tompson Center opened their doors for 4 years with loving arms and made services available as far as medical, legal, hygienic, and arts and crafts available for those who are less fortunate.
We take this moment to remember those who passed away due to exposure of the elements, of the weather. I was one of those people who really didn’t feel comfortable staying in shelters. I stayed under Ponchartrain Expressway. I stayed on Julia and N. Tonti. I never went into shelters on Freeze Nights. I just put a blanket on my tent and had a baking pan inside with candles lit to keep me warm. These are some of the obstacles that homeless people go through in fear of going into a shelter: fear that legal documentation that I accumulated on the streets would be lost or stolen and fear that I would have to reset and start all over again with documentation.
I would encourage the wealthier class of people not to treat homeless people bad or disrespectful because….Facebook quote… “We are the same. You could be one hospital bill away from homelessness.”
The Harry Tompson Center/Rebuild Center made other services available for me to be able to start a career with art and photography. I was encouraged to go forward. I recently purchased an Artist Permit and I sell art now. I have been housed. I still go to the Rebuild Center to see those faces that were there for me. When I had nothing, those faces I will call “Grace Faces.”
As Art By Jaw would say, ‘I tried to told ya but you didn’t want heard me.'”
Getting Off Sesame Street
Reflection by Rabbi Deborah Silver for the Interfaith Prayer Service for New Orleans Homeless 2018
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to—
I learned the other day that there’s a new face on Sesame Street. She has a pink face and braids and her name is Lily. Lily is a Muppet who was introduced a little while ago. Her family was hungry and needed feeding. And now she is back again because they are homeless.
Lily is a seven-year-old girl whose family comes to stay with friends when they lose their apartment. She and her family have been staying “in all different kinds of places.” There’s a scene in which she is painting a mural with her friend Elmo. When they start to use the color purple, she tells him, “I’m not sure I want to paint anymore.” That’s because purple was the color of her old bedroom.
Lily’s presence on Sesame Street is a poignant testament to the apparently insoluble issue of homelessness in our society. She represents a population of vulnerable individuals, joining other vulnerable populations struggling to find shelter on our inhospitable streets. There are an estimated 2.5 million homeless children across this country. Half of them are under six.
And – as we commemorate tonight – some of them are no longer alive. The darkness has taken them. As we gather to contemplate the precious souls this contemporary plague has claimed, we might feel that there is nothing we can do. But that’s not the case. And we can begin by changing our thinking and helping to change the thinking of others.
In the Jewish tradition there is a teaching that a band of angels walks in front of every human being, led by a herald crying, Make way for the image of God! It’s an interpretation – a Midrash – of the verse from the beginning of all of our stories, the one that describes how the first human being was made:
God said: Let us make humans in our image, after our likeness…and so did God create them.
And I am certain that a similar teaching is part of every tradition represented here tonight.
It is a teaching of transformative power. It means that every time we encounter a Lily we should see God looking out of her eyes. It means that every time we support those who work to improve the lives of the homeless, we are not angels, just equals. It means that every time we contribute to a charity to try to end homelessness we should intend for even that impersonal encounter to contain a spark of holiness.
Every homeless person – every Lily – is created in the image of God. Every homeless person – every Lily – of them has as a band of angels and a herald parading before them, demanding our attention and our respect and our love.
Let us mourn the images of God that have left the world. Let us remember, in our next encounter, before whom we are standing.
And maybe together we can get Lily off Sesame Street.
It can happen to anyone.
Liam Fitzgerald, Center Assistant
A couple months ago someone I knew stumbled into the Rebuild Center. I graduated with his brother from Jesuit High School. Coming from a privileged background, this was the last person I thought I would see come to utilize the services we provide to those without a home. Seeing him was a strong reminder that homelessness can happen to anyone.
I recognized him the moment I saw him, and the look he gave me told me that he recognized me too. Instead of stopping to talk to him, I gave him a small smile and walked right past him, just like I would have had I seen him flying a sign on the street. In my seven years around the Center, I had never encountered a familiar face, and it threw me for a loop.
I never thought one of those in need would include someone who went to my same high school, a prestigious Catholic institution. Students from these high schools come to volunteer every summer, and it was shocking to see him there as a guest instead. I wouldn’t expect to see anyone like me out of options — outside of a support network.
I worked up the nerve to go talk to him a few minutes later and the first thing I noticed is that he had no shoes. He needed a shower too. I asked him what he was doing at the Center, and he told me that he had come to attend our weekly Share & Support meeting, a space for people struggling with life on the streets to come together and drink coffee.
He asked me what I was doing at the Center, and I told him that I worked here. He was intrigued by this and asked me if I had ever come out to be with “the people.” I responded by telling him I stayed at the Rebuild Center to do my work, insinuating that this was not a social thing for me. He seemed a little disappointed… almost like I was saying that he belonged out there and I belonged in here. I did not intend it that way, but I didn’t know how else to respond. That was the reality of our situations — he was spending his days and nights on the streets; and, although I spend my days at the Rebuild Center, I get to go home to a family and a bed.
We often say “homelessness could happen to anyone,” and as much as I can see that in other people’s lives and stories, I have a hard time believing it could happen to me. This classmate of mine has a support network like mine, connections like mine, and a background like mine. And HE ended up on the streets. This really can happen to anyone, even a Jesuit boy.
Blog by Nic Aziz of NOMA, posted on the NOMA website
“NOMA+ connects with the Rebuild Center”
Sharing parts of ourselves and longing to be heard is one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity. Unfortunately certain social stratification within our world often restrains our ability to comfortably share and listen to others. Illusory and exclusionary constructs such as race, class, creed, and sexuality compound this problem. Opportunities that enable individuals to overcome these cultural barricades are integral to the evolution of our collective consciousness.
While each of the six Everyday New Orleans project sites were special, I knew there would be something particularly magical about the sharing that would take place at the Rebuild Center. The center has been serving individuals impacted by homelessness since the early 2000s by offering services such as showering facilities, meals, and a place to rest and find safe shelter. Currently, the center sees over 5,000 individuals annually and since 2013 has found permanent housing for 81 percent of individuals who choose to receive case management services.
I began passing out flyers at the center the week prior to the first workshop and immediately noticed the immense amount of beauty that would come from the experience. At the recommendation of the center’s executive director, Vicki Judice, I visited during lunch in an effort to reach the largest amount of people. This gave me the chance to see the center during its peak period and have several substantive interactions with some of the guests. While some were indifferent with my attempt to share information, others were very curious and exuberant — particularly one individual named Sarah.
Vicki pointed out Sarah and told me that she was an artist and would be very interested in the opportunity to engage with the Everyday New Orleans project. I immediately went up to her, introduced myself and gave her information about the project. She had a refreshingly warm spirit and expressed much interest in participating — and I looked forward to seeing her the following week.
The morning of the first workshop, despite having nearly twenty participants between the two available slots, Sarah was nowhere to be found. I was somewhat disheartened but realized that there were many things that could have prevented her from coming. As I was breaking NOMA+ down and preparing to leave, a small — and what would prove to be serendipitous — mechanical issue forced me to stay longer and wait for the manufacturer to arrive to solve the problem. While I was waiting, I noticed Sarah walking past the gate and instantly exclaimed “Hey!” with a wave to get her attention. She came over to the pop-up museum and apologized saying that she had overslept. I told her not to worry and gave her one of the disposable cameras along with the instructions on when to return the camera to staff at the Rebuild Center.
Of the eighteen cameras that were given out, twelve were returned with one of these being Sarah’s. On the morning of the second workshop, she was one of the first to show up and she went through her pictures with pride and enthusiasm. Listening to her explain the concepts and themes addressed in her pictures was such a special moment and it truly affirmed her artistic acumen. While the high quality of her pictures was clear to me and my co-instructor, like a true artist, Sarah was her biggest critic and questioned the validity of her photos. Despite these insecurities, she took one of the most profound photos of the entire Everyday New Orleans project. (below)
This beauty and vulnerability was shown in so many ways during the second workshop as each Rebuild participant shared their thoughts and stories behind their photos.
Juston was arguably the most enthusiastic participant from the beginning of the first workshop. This excitement translated into him traveling to several different areas in New Orleans that are often forgotten about and underutilized. He took pictures at Lake Pontchartrain, the ravaged former Six Flags theme park and the historical Lincoln Beach. When discussing the story behind his pictures at Lake Pontchartrain, he noted how he chose to ride his bicycle “all the way out there” as early as possible to catch it at the best light quality of the day. This proved to be very advantageous as we were all surprised at how well he was able to capture the area with a disposable camera.
Howard was very eager to share his work during the second workshop and was particularly passionate about the paradox of Duncan Plaza. This plaza is ironically located across from City Hall and exists as a haven for many individuals who are affected by homelessness. His feelings about this dichotomy touched me in a unique way as someone who formerly worked to address urban challenges for Mayor Mitch Landrieu in City Hall. I have worked on several art related projects in the plaza since then. In addition to these feelings, he shared the very personal meaning behind the two photos below. The small orange house is one that is located behind the Rebuild Center in which he currently keeps many of his belongings, while the other photo represents the type of house that he hopes to one day live in.
Jose, a native of Mexico, identified himself as an artist from the beginning of the first workshop and mentioned that he had once taken photos that had been featured in a national print publication. My co-instructor, native New Orleans photographer Gabrielle Garcia-Steib, was also able to connect with him on a deeper level by speaking Spanish. His featured photos in the exhibition each comment on complex southern narratives. While going through his photos during the second workshop, he noted that the photo featuring the tree, chains, and a Confederate hat was a photo that he curated to illustrate race issues in the South. The house visible in the background is one where he keeps these pieces and other works of art that he has made.
Ted was one of the most inquisitive participants during the first workshop and as a result I really looked forward to seeing his photos. While reviewing everyone’s photos in the second workshop, he became very self-conscious about sharing his own. Watching one of the other participants, Shonda (pictured below), helped him overcome his fear was a very special moment and he eventually shared his work with the group. When sharing his picture of the bike memorial, he became emotional, noting that he has lost several friends in traffic accidents.
The love and vulnerability that encompassed NOMA+ during the workshops at the Rebuild Center was so abundant and these characteristics would show themselves throughout the actual museum on the opening night of Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories. Around 5:30 that evening, I recall seeing Vicki walking up with Sarah, Jose, Shonda, and Juston. They were all dressed for the event and were each carrying a bouquet of flowers that Vicki had given them to commemorate the evening. I was immediately overcome with joy and instructed them to enter the museum and check out their respective photos featured in the exhibition. Getting to witness how excited they were to just be in the museum as they looked at their photos on a wall and shared themselves with others was such a special sight. The beauty and ability of art to bring together individuals from all walks of life, while spurring enhanced compassion and empathy in the maker and viewer was so evident on this night. As art sits at the frontline of humanity’s war against itself, its ability to increase our comfort with sharing ourselves is arguably more important now than ever before.
From left to right: Nic Aziz, Juston Winfield, Jesus Robles, and Shondra Favaroth
Toward the end of the night as I was walking my parents out of the museum, I heard a group yell “Bye Nic!” from the opposite end of the park. It was Vicki, Juston, Jose, Shonda, and Sarah. I walked over to tell them goodbye and congratulate them again on being a part of the exhibition. We all shared our reflections on the night and it became a very emotional moment as I think it was one in which we all collectively recognized the power of the Everyday New Orleans project. Each of them expressed so much gratitude about this gift that I helped give to them, and I expressed my gratitude for their participation and vulnerability. Just as I was walking away, Sarah got my attention, benevolently similar to the way that I had the morning of the first workshop when she was walking past the gate. This time it was me on the other end as she split the bouquet of flowers that Vicki had given her and gave me the other half.
Sharing ourselves is truly so much more important and powerful than we realize.
View and contribute photographs to the Everyday New Orleans project at this Instagram account, hashtag #EverydayNewOrleans.
Homeless, Helpless, and Hopeless
By HTC Guest Paul Mandell on his experiences being homeless
The first thing you have to learn if you live on the street is how to take care of your feet. This means that soft shoes will not do. Ideally you would have two pairs of well-made leather boots that you alternate every day… and fresh clean socks are a must also when you live outside. Mobility is the key to your survival- your feet do the walking. Keep them warm and dry and you will never get sick.
I am 73 and have never been “homeless” before, until May two years ago. I was parked at a rest stop in Boulder City Nevada when three local cops rolled up on me. They impounded my truck, all my forms of ID, including my passport (I am a Canadian citizen), all my clothes and all my worldly possessions. In addition, they found some obscure warrant for driving without a license in Calaueras County, California.
They put me in Clark County jail in Las Vegas for two weeks while we waited for a transfer back to Calaueras. I was arraigned two days after arriving in Calaueras and after two more weeks in jail I was brought back to court to read to the charges. My plea was “no contest”. I signed a piece of paper to show up for sentencing and they let me go. I hung around for three days, gathered some money and headed to Boulder City to get my truck.
When I got back, my truck and all my stuff had been sold at auction. In addition I had been tried in absentia at a court in Boulder City and now owed them $2,400. They arrested me and put me in the Henderson Jail. When I saw a judge on Monday he threw out the case. In addition another private lawsuit netted me $14,000 because they sold my truck without “due process”, but that’s another story…
I was now “homeless and helpless” in Boulder City Nevada. I went into “survival” mode. I had to find a campsite where I could live and sleep in relative safety, which I did. Then I had to learn how to scavenge for food. The dumpster at Albertson’s grocery in Boulder provided more than enough to eat. It fed lots of others too. I was now just getting to understand just what being “unhoused” was all about.
My next biggest problem was staying clean. There are no showers on the street and there is also the issue of keeping your clothes clean. Being “unhoused” has been a learning situation for me, and I have learned a lot in my time on the street.
Hope is not the same as optimism.
Vicki Judice, Executive Director
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.
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
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
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.
How old are you?
Any medical history?
How about surgeries?
Not that I know of.
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?
He looks away.
Do you smoke at all?
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.
Mostly heroin, sometimes meth.
Depends on what I can get.
Have you ever been tested
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 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
it’s just been awhile
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?
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.
“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.
“There is a harmony that exists in the space that is the Rebuild Center.”
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!
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.”
“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!
“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.
“Hop to it!”
Written by Vicki Judice
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!
Harry Tompson Center
“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.
“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.
“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.