Monday, September 26, 2016

"Your greatest test is when you are able to bless someone else while you are going through your own storm." -Unknown

The Catholic Church is the most charitable institution in the world.

On both world and local levels, they have invested countless volunteer hours and amounts of money into weaving charity and hope into the lives of those in desperate need of both.  So, what does something so large have to do with poverty and homelessness in Franklin County?

Sure, volunteers may be Catholic, people who donate money may be Catholic, but one thing (and this is just one example) that the Catholic Church itself has done is develop its own branch of aid at each parish: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

All to often, people are faced with a very difficult decision: buy food, medicine, gas, whatever it may be, or pay the bills to keep the utility company from shutting of the water, electricity, etc. at my house.  In other words, decide between what I need to survive and what I need to survive.  As you can guess, it's not an easy decision to make.  That's where the Society of St. Vincent de Paul steps in and opens its doors to those in need.  When people come to the branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul where they live (in Union's case, Immaculate Conception Church and its pastor, Fr. Joe Post), they are often, as Fr. Joe points out, "behind several months [on paying bills] and usually call for assistance when the utility company is threatening to shut off the utility."  Now, the funding for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul relies solely on the generosity of those in the parish and community (and, in the case of Immaculate Conception's branch, Vincent's Closet), so the aid that can be provided is definitely limited, but the Society of St. Vincent de Paul finds a way to give one of the most meaningful gifts this world has to offer:


In August alone, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul distributed over $12,000 to 50 families and individuals, providing a little more time for them to establish a safety net for themselves.  Aid can only be given once in a year to ensure that everyone who needs help can receive it (again, funds are limited), but Fr. Post and other volunteers of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul "work hard to take care of the needs of the most desperate and those who truly need the help."

Although this utility assistance program's main clientele is not homeless (there are other Catholic charities that focus on that), many of those that receive aid would be homeless  without its existence.  While the program is not flawless--no program ever is--the Society of St. Vincent de Paul makes an impact on the lives of both volunteers and clients.  Each client's aid is based on their individual need: if there are specific needs or cases outside of the assistance usually given, the Society forms a web of support between parishes and agencies and anyone they need to to give the recipient the help that they need to keep moving forward with their lives.

Along the way, all involved gain something that doesn't have a price tag: the gratitude that comes when we realize someone is behind us to steady our feet and guide our steps on this road that we call life.

There are so many organizations like this one that provide the amazing gifts of time and physical resources to allow those in need to rebuild their lives, but, starting now, we're going to take this in a new direction.  Starting now, we'll begin to discover what is and isn't and should be done to aid people on even deeper levels.  It's time to tackle the root of the problem.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Some people cross your path and change your whole direction." -Unknown

I was leaning against a table full of crates of food when he was ushered into the room.

Unlike the others that had come before him, he wasn't pushing an abandoned shopping cart; instead, he had a bag and an old, gray backpack that had long-since seen better days slung across his shoulders.  His clothes and hair could be described as nothing other than disheveled, and he had to have only been in his twenties.  I tore that room apart looking for the right things to give him: enough to last for a month; only as much as would fit in the backpack and bag; things that could be eaten straight out of the package, without being frozen, heated, or prepared in any way.  Eventually, with a backpack stuffed to the brim with water bottles, snacks, cereal packets, and everything else I could cram in there, there was a quick, "Have a good day!", "Thanks.", and thud of the door behind him. I watched him out the window as he walked past the lucky few who were loading groceries into their beat-up cars, past the others who lined the sidewalk waiting for a ride from a friend, and into the heart of town to wherever the sidewalks carried him.

For years I have volunteered at the Union Food Pantry in some way or another.  I've been hugged over a jug of milk, become a toddler's best friend because of peanut butter crackers and pudding, and made multiple people cry by simply slipping a frozen pizza or box of ice cream or school supplies into their cart, but the day this man came through the door was one of the most inspiring ones for me.  This was the first time that I realized that there are homeless in our hometown--that some people's lives are contained to the streets we travel. Then, I began to understand what had been in front of me the whole time: most of the people who I saw there every day were on the edge of homelessness themselves.

Sitting on a desk in the Union Food Pantry is a binder of papers for those who have come into the Food Pantry in the last 6 months.  Five inches worth of paper contain the names of hundreds of people in the Union RXI School District who have received aid in the last 6 months.  The Food Pantry tries to be as temporary as possible, requiring strict guidelines for who can or cannot receive aid (based on their location and gross income) to ensure that those who truly need help have access to it, and can use the money they save on groceries for things such as medical or utility bills.  People across every spectrum of age and situation have turned towards the Pantry to help them get back on their feet.  For the past 25 years, the Food Pantry has relied on the generosity of the community, and the community has relied on the generosity of the Food Pantry.

With over 160 clients a month, the Union Food Pantry has touched the lives of many over the years.  And it is clear: in the people who return years later to donate, the people who volunteer or donate to make a difference in their community, the clients who come bearing news of a new job, the people we work with or go to school with or stand behind in the gas station line who have a place to go home to tonight and a meal to eat when they get there.

What is also clear, however, is the need.  Individuals and families who do not have enough income or resources to purchase food flock to the shelves once a month.  Senior citizens, disabled, parents just trying to provide for their children--all walks of life are represented in those 160 people each month, broken down to 20+ people helped each day the Food Pantry is open (two days a week, two hours a day).  While most clients have shelter of some kind--no matter how poor of condition it may be in--many do not.  Families and individuals travel from their abandoned buildings and bridges, makeshift tents and vacant lots to wait on the sidewalk until the Union Food Pantry opens its doors and arms and hearts to ensure that, at least for today, they have something to eat. And that is what volunteering at the Union Food Pantry has taught me: that a meal is never just food.  It is a lifeline.  It is the hope that today I will survive, tomorrow I will have to chance to rebuild my life, and one day, I will have enough to give back and pay it forward.

More importantly, my work there has taught me that people's lives are not contained to the streets.  They are shaped by that single second in time when they decided to be brave; their tragic memories skip across their dreams; they struggle to keep their heads above water when things go wrong; in a word, they are us.  They are human.  They are flawed, generous, creatures of habit, people who are just trying to help each other out and find their place in this crazy, ugly, beautiful world that we share...

...Which is our ultimate journey, our next step: to keep bringing light to the people who have dedicated themselves to helping those in need, to find a way to do this in our own personal lives, to share our knowledge of this need to the rest of the world, and to build something better where the sidewalk ends.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you are not going to stay where you are." -John Pierpont Morgan

Alongside the service road in St. Clair, MO sits what used to be the Scully Restaurant and Motel. Now, it Franklin County's one and only homeless shelter.

Welcome to the Agape House.

While Franklin County has a few organizations that provide emergency shelter, they are usually for one specific purpose, such as victims of domestic abuse, and are very short term.  The Agape House is the only organization that provides shelter to anyone in Franklin County who is homeless.  At the same time, the Agape House isn't your typical homeless shelter.  Clients are required to follow the shelter's rules and work to support themselves.  Things like working, saving money, not having any drugs or alcohol on sight, and following the 10:00 p.m. curfew are all required of the residents, but the most important requirement is that they have to acknowledge the reason they became homeless and work to solve this problem.  For this reason, many people who need assistance will not stay at the Agape House.  It is often difficult to admit that we are part of our own problems, and for those who are homeless it is no different.  Because of this, some only stay a day before continuing on their way.

But, for the number of people who do this, there are many more who stay and change their lives.  In an interview with the Missourian newspaper, Jim Armistead of the Agape House spoke of the 25,902 individuals who have spent time there between 1985 and 2012.  People from all backgrounds, all walks of life, have decided to put in the immense time and effort it requires to rebuild their lives, and turn towards the Agape House for guidance.  Besides providing housing, the Agape House helps recipients pay for utilities and medication, manages a food pantry, and even supplies clients with clothing and household items that have been lost in disasters.  From single moms to families, attorneys to unemployed, recently released from jail to flood or fire victims, the Agape House reshapes over a thousand lives each year.

The only problem: the amount of people the Agape House doesn't get the chance to affect, but instead must turn away.  The building only contains 8 rooms--all of which are continually occupied on a first come, first serve basis.  The shelter receives 10-20 calls a day as people who are trying to escape their situations search for a place to rebuild.  Some call once a day, in the hopes that a room has been vacated; others are first-time callers searching for a safe haven; but all deserve the chance at a new life.  To do this, every penny that comes in the door is put towards helping the homeless, and every worker at the Agape House is a volunteer.  Even so, the shelter relies solely on private donations, and many people in our county have no idea the shelter even exists, much less the magnitude of change it provides.  All the while, homelessness rates are on the rise.  Kathy Jennemann, a volunteer at the shelter, described it this way: "Being homeless isn't just being in a shelter.  It's living with grandma, or other's not having a permanent place to call home, and I don't think people realize how broad that is, because it's a big problem--and it's getting worse."

So here's my question:  Who are we to not help them rise? Where would we be if no one ever gave us a second chance in our lives? What if the first time you fell down and decided to get back up, no one would give you their hand? The clients of the Agape House are not strangers; they are community.  They are someone's family, someone's reason to smile today, someone's friend or neighbor or hero.

And to every one of us in this community, they are our future.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Roads were made for journeys not destinations." -Confucius

For the past week, I've been jumping from one website to the next, analyzing one study report after another, and this is what I've discovered: In 2015, UMSL's Missouri Statewide Homelessness Study Report found that around 550 children enrolled in JUST the Union, Sullivan, St. Clair, New Haven, Meramec Valley, and Londell school district were considered homeless.

While that number might not seem huge, let's break it down.  Unfortunately, most homeless fall through the cracks undetected.  They often have no job, no address, no means of contact. These 550 kids are the ones who attend school, the ones who have been reported as homeless.  There is no way to know exactly how many in our county are living on the streets.  So, we do the best with what we have.  We crunch the numbers for what we do know, and one thing we know is that there are thousands of people on the edge of homelessness--and I do mean thousands.  The STL Children's Services Coalition 2014 Needs Assessment showed 13,000-14,000 people in Franklin County are impoverished.  Food prices aren't cheap.  Neither is gasoline, utilities, vehicles, education, medicine, and especially not housing.  And it is very likely that these prices will increase.  We have 13,000 known neighbors hanging on by the skin of their teeth, praying that life doesn't throw anything more at them, because one more obstacle may very well be the insurmountable, and the road may become a destination.

While these numbers are important, homelessness is a very human issue.  For that reason, from here we hit the streets: talk to organizations that work to combat homelessness, discover what they believe the need is, and continue on our quest to make the road a path to recovery, not a destination.

The first stop: a place thousands have turned too, yet others may not even know exists...

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Franklin County Tractor Cruise!!

Hey guys!!
Across the globe, food pantries are combating poverty and homelessness in many ways.  Whether it is providing meals for the homeless or groceries to families so that parents can direct their income towards paying for medical bills, housing, heating, etc., food pantries do a lot of good in our communities.  For that reason, they need a lot of support from our communities.  As a fun way to show our community's support and gratitude towards our food pantries, the Knights of Columbus has organized their annual Tractor Cruise to collect donations and canned food.

So, here comes my first challenge:  When you're at the grocery store this week, grab an extra can or two of food; place yourself somewhere along the 30 mile route on September 11th; watch the tractors roll through; and show your community that you care.