Monday, February 9, 2015

The Fight To End Homelessness

Brett Tucker

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take place in Chicago’s annual point-in-time homeless count. One night each year, volunteers canvas all of Chicago in order to count and locate the city’s homeless. This information is then used to help determine what funding and resources local agencies will receive. During the count groups search hospitals, bus stations, alleyways, homeless shelters, and more during about a five-hour span. All volunteers receive training before the count begins, and so I gathered with 15 others at the Night Ministry in Ravenswood, where we discussed techniques and tips as well as divided into our groups for the evening. I was assigned to the Lincolnwood neighborhood, along with former FOA volunteer Patrick and Dave, a city employee. The three of us headed out at about 9pm, with stacks of surveys and a box full of gloves and scarves in hand.  

We arrived at our location and began driving the side streets in search of anyone who might be homeless. After about 30 minutes, it became apparent that we weren’t going to see anyone on the streets that night. Our area was highly residential, several blocks from any restaurants, businesses, or other public areas. We ended up driving for over two hours without recording a single homeless person.

Instead of letting this discourage us, Dave took the time to give us an overview of homelessness in Chicago. As an employee of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, Dave has taken part in the count for the past several years. Part of his job includes researching homelessness for the city, so he provided a unique insight into how homelessness operates in Chicago. He talked about the approximately 6,000 homeless individuals in the city, and the how the majority live on the streets, unable to find space in a shelter. He also talked about the various challenges homeless individuals often face, from mental health issues and physical disabilities to employment challenges and language barriers.  

As Dave spoke, he reminded me of the conversations I’ve had with the other full time volunteers. We talk often about the need for collaboration, for organizations to focus on what they’re good at and to allow others to work according to their strengths and passions. No one can end homelessness alone; we all have a part to play. The end of homelessness will be closest when we realize this fact, and share resources and collaborate with others who ultimately have the same goal that we do. 

Throughout my time at Franciscan Outreach, I’ve often been frustrated by my inability to give someone housing or provide them with a job. It’s easy to feel like we do little to help our guests in a meaningful way. My conversation with Dave helped me connect my role to the larger fight to end homelessness. The support we provide through meals and conversation is a vital step in helping someone end a life on the streets. I may not be able to give someone housing, but I can provide a little comfort along the way. We all have a part to play, and I’m beginning to see how my work here is part of the larger picture.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Connecting with Beautiful Ladies


The women come into the dorm all at once at 6:30 pm.  I'm standing at the front of the room, there to greet them, sign out towels, and get anything else they might need.  Many of them are bundled up, noses red and faces barely peeking out of hats and hoods and scarves.  It's evident that they're all happy to be inside after a cold day out, and many of them drop off their things and go straight to the kitchen for a hot meal.

This is the usual start to every night I work.  From there, it varies:  welcoming new intakes, mediating conflict, solving problems, being a resource.  Regardless of the night, though, it's always sure that I'm in for some sort of adventure.  The best part of being in the dorm is making connections with so many different kinds of women.  I have learned where they grew up, what brought them to the shelter, what their families are like, and so many more of their little quirks.  These women have become my friends.
Ladies sharing what they're Thankful for
Since starting in July, I knew I wanted to do more for the women I serve.  I wanted to do more than provide a bed, more than just give them a safe place to sleep at night.  I knew (and still know) that I alone do not have the capacity to change the way the system works and get everyone into housing quickly, nor do I have the power to eliminate addiction and mental illness, so starting small and on a relational level was something I knew I could facilitate.

I thought about all of the art therapy classes that were prominent where I went to college, and how art can really do things for people.  Whether it's taking our minds off of something or giving us a forum to express how we're feeling, I know that art can be therapeutic and helpful.  I also drew upon experiences I had in leading student groups to build connections and create safe environments for sharing.  After a few months of brainstorming and dragging my feet, I was finally able to put a group together.

We met for the first time last Friday to make snowflakes and other holiday crafts for the dorm.  I baked a few batches of Christmas cookies and some other goodies for the women were provided by the shelter. After everything was set up, I turned the Christmas music on and the women started coming into the back room where I was holding the group.  It filled me with so much joy to see grown women sitting around a table, crafting snowflakes out of coffee filters and decorating them with glitter glue.  I was thrilled to see how happy they all were - joking around and laughing, singing along to the music; even the ones who just came in to eat a cookie and watch were having a great time.  It was wonderful to see the guests who usually kept to themselves out and about, crafting and having fun.  The creations were beautiful, and we hung them around the dorm afterwards.
Women's group
When I came back the next night for my overnight shift, one of the women approached me asking if we could do arts and crafts again that night.  She said, "You know, Theresa, this is a really crappy situation we're all in...but doing crafts last night was so much fun. It's nice to forget about where I'm at for a little bit."  Hearing this in combination with seeing just how happy everyone was just a night before gave me a feeling of fullness that I haven't felt in a long time.  Seeing the joy in the guest's faces filled me with an incredible happiness--knowing that I had a hand in facilitating this delight was an awesome feeling.  But it's not really about how I feel, is it?  That's just an added bonus, the icing on the cake brought about by the beautiful women I have the privilege to be with.

The feedback was positive.  I hope to continue this group twice a month on a few of my nights off.  We'll craft for holidays, but I also have some ideas around gratitude, reflection, family, and connection.  I am absolutely thrilled to see the progress this group makes over the course of my volunteer year.

If you're interested in providing financial support to cover supply costs for our women's groups, please email Theresa at Thanks!

Friday, December 19, 2014

2014 Homeless Persons' Memorial

Last night we joined hundreds of others in Chicago to remember those who have lost their lives on the street this year.  We even had to submit a few of our own guests names.  Please join us in making sure they are remembered:

Mary H.
Elias C.
Thomas K.
William B.
Margie C.
Carolyn W.
David K.
Daniel B.
Beverly W.
Frederick R.
Kevin S.
Frank C.
Clifford C.
Melvin P.
Suzette R.
Nelson V.
Janice W.
Paul L.
Kathleen E.
Williams H.
Harvey J.
Charles M.
Robert W.
Max P.
Sherice H.
Orlando F.
Joseph K.
Jamie H.
Lynda E.
Robert S.
Andrea Y.
Bernabe G.

"May their memory stir us in greater compassion for those who still wander homeless in our city's streets.  May their memory ignite within us greater desire to confront the injustices that lead to homelessness.  May their memory remind us that though at times our love for one another may falter, your own love for all your people will never fail."


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

If You Could See Into My Heart


It’s no secret that I am a passionate person. When I am invested in something or someone, I am all in. This year has taken my already strong passions and emotions and shocked them to a whole new level. I went from being someone that rarely cried to feeling like the tears are constantly flowing, whether they are out of joy, sorrowfulness, or exhaustion as I approach the all too familiar state of delirium. My heart aches. This thought came to me as I was walking outside in negative degree weather and I threw aside all sensibilities and took off my warm, bulky gloves so that I could write my words down while still in the moment.
I keep coming back to the lyrics of my favorite song. My friend, Pat McKillen, has a beautiful way with words. While my emotions currently feel all over the place, I find clarity when I listen to his music. This specific moment of his song, Starting Today, stands out to me:

“Love the ones, love the ones, the ones that make your heart beat. Love the ones, love the ones, the ones that make your lungs breathe. Love the ones, love the ones, the ones that make your heart bleed.”

I listen to guests as they talk about how no one loves them or how they have been forgotten by our society. Those are the times when I wish that people could see into my heart. I wish they knew how much I care, how much my heart aches, how much they matter. The guests that come into the Marquard Center are kind, brilliant, hilarious, and have beautiful souls. They fill my heart up and make it hurt in ways I never imagined possible. They make my lungs breathe. I will attempt to show you a small glimpse of what my heart can’t through pictures.

I could never forget how natural it feels to sit next to Chris* and discuss everything from books to our ideas of the meaning of life in the dining room.

I could never forget how excited Veronica* got and the look on her face when I ran to my room to change so that we could be twins.
I could never forget how loved I felt when Trey* gave me a cup decorated with a childhood favorite and told me that he wouldn’t let anyone ever take my smile away.

I moved to Chicago because I felt drawn to Franciscan Outreach’s mission and wanted more exposure to the homeless population. It is important to me to gain a better understanding of all of the individuals that make up our society so that I have a better idea of how I can help. I came here with the hope that I would be able to have a positive impact on the lives of others and in return have been given a family that could never be forgotten.
*Name changed


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

People Serving People

This post was originally featured in the November 2014 issue of The English Aggie, a newsletter at Texas A&M University, and was written by 2013-14 Franciscan Outreach Volunteer alum Sara Salazar-Ramirez.  The original post can be found here.

Sara (left) & Kristen making dinner
From July 26th, 2013 to July 25, 2014 I lived on the third floor of the Marquard Center, located in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL.  I lived with twelve other young adults in something called an intentional community, which, admittedly, sounds a bit commune-y.  It really means exactly as it sounds: we were a group of individuals with the shared interest of service and we deliberately chose to live with each other.  "What I did" is not a very simple question to answer, nor is it one I wish to give a generic response.  The answer I give most often goes a little like, "Franciscan Outreach is a non-profit organization that provides services for the homeless and otherwise marginalized of the Chicago area.  On a weekly basis at the Marquard Center we have case managers to meet one on one with individuals, twice a week we offer shower and lunch services, and four times a week we offer laundry services.  We serve dinner 365 days of the year, holidays and snow storms included.  I, along with 5 others, plan and prepare meals for anywhere between 70 to 150 guests per night."  The really real answer I want to give is more like, "I spent a year of my life devoting time and energy and attention to cooking, cleaning, talking, supervising, learning, fumbling, laughing, crying, and being for/to/from/with many homeless, some struggling, all humans."

Although the program prefers volunteers to have Bachelor's degrees, it does not require or specify the need for any particular field of study.  One might think I did not use my writing skills during my year in the kitchen, but that individual would be mistaken.  A few of my community members worked on applications to graduate schools and medical schools, so I, being the token paper-fixer-upper, helped out where I could.  I also had the opportunity to edit papers and scholarship essays for a particular guest earning his Master's degree.  That aside, I can honestly say my ability to interact with individuals had been significantly enhanced due to my discussion based English classes.  Investing my time with my classmates by listening, learning, digesting, and discussing an array of topics, I had great practice in putting time into people and in hearing them first.

I'd really like to scream "EVERY PERSON SHOULD DO SOMETHING LIKE THIS!!!" but social norms don't receive this type of approach well.  So, this, my fellow English majors and eager individuals embarking on society's fringes, is my scream and shout: I encourage you to seek a similar experience.  Every opportunity you have, every job, every relationship, every everything you do will involve other humans, each making up the world in which we live.  No matter what your religious background or spirituality level, this type of experience is a deeply spiritual one simply because of the relational level in which you meet others.  I challenge you to experience humanity in a way that allows you to see beyond the scope of the superficial tiers of our culture.  I challenge you to see humanity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Growing Family

Cara Ugolino

My plane took off from New York at 6:50 PM, and I had 2 hours and 10 minutes left to try and process the changes that were about to take place in my life. To be honest, I couldn't help but wonder if I had completely lost my mind in deciding to move to the Midwest. July 11th was the day that I moved to Chicago to become a Franciscan Outreach Volunteer, and also the first day I had ever been to Chicago. I was so overwhelmed, that when Kristen, our Community Assistant picked me up at the airport, and asked me about a book that was just made into a movie filmed in Chicago, I said I had never read it, and I had actually read it the week prior. 

While I was scared about my move to the Marquard Center, I was also excited to be surrounded by a community of people with a common purpose to provide shelter, food and help in building a better life for our guests. While I expected to fully immerse myself into the relationships with the other twelve community members that I live with on the third floor of the soup kitchen, I did not expect to feel such strong connections with the guests that we serve on the first floor. I quickly realized that I am living among a community of way more than thirteen people.

When leaving NY, I thought I would no longer hear reminders about being safe and cautious of my surroundings, like I had listened to numerous times from my grandmother. However, I quickly realized that at the Marquard Center, I gained about 100 grandpas who continuously warn me about which neighborhoods to stay away from at night, and to have my guard up, even if I feel comfortable walking under bridges. While I often get frustrated with arguments that happen at dinner in the soup kitchen over who got the milk first, or when some of the ladies yell at me for not having enough shower time, it’s the smiles and conversations exchanged that make me feel at home here. It’s having a guest have tears in his eyes, while asking me if my coworker was okay because she seemed sad that day, and that same guest holding his heart while saying, “When you start talking to people, and get to know them, you start to feel it here (pointing at his heart) and you begin to notice when they are upset or not feeling like themselves.” Or having a guest sing to you, “You’ve got a friend in me.” Or seeing a guest tell her friend that she found a place to stay and a job, and seeing her friend’s reaction with the purest joy I have ever seen. Or simply talking to a guest about our mutual love for biscuits and gravy.

On my flight to Chicago, I never could have imagined how much my family would expand here at Franciscan Outreach.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Want to Know Your Story

Currently as I write this I’m staring at a picture that a guest drew of me and there is another one singing Hound Dog outside my window. Moments like this remind me how lucky I am to have the opportunity and privilege to get to know the guests that come into the Marquard Center. Listening to my own personal concert is quite lovely and makes me think of my grandmother who had a deep love for all things Elvis Presley.

Sara recently told me that I am secretly artsy which led to a discussion about my own personal taste in music. More often than not you will find me listening to someone that hasn’t quite been discovered yet or a B-side track rather than something mainstream. To me, that is usually where you will hear the more meaningful words. The stories that might not be as popular but need to be heard the most.  
I think the way I express my art most is through people. When I meet someone, I want to know their story, the things that they are passionate about, I want to see their face light up as they tell me about their art. I want to know what makes them feel alive. I paint the picture of their life in my mind and their stories live on through me. Serving at the Marquard Center gives me the chance to hear a lot of stories because many of the guests don’t have much social interaction outside of our soup kitchen. I’ve lost track of time listening to guests and found myself replaying their stories in my head as I lie in my bed at night.
A moment that stands out is when a guest that had only been in once before became so excited that I remembered his name. He told me that I made him feel like a somebody and then as if he could see into my soul, he felt compelled to tell me that someday I would meet someone that would make my heart melt and I would fall completely in love. I listened on as he told me about the great love of his life and how he lost everything after he lost her. It was a story full of addictions, heartache, and depression that left a lasting mark on my own heart.
Then there was the Marine that I found sitting on one of our benches one evening. I mentioned that my cousin was a Marine and he immediately began telling me his war stories and what it felt like to come back home. He didn’t hold back and told me about how much therapy he needed to even be able to talk about his experiences with me. I felt honored to be let in and thankful that I had decided to walk outside at that moment. When he got up to leave, I thanked him for his service and extended my hand to shake his. He then took my hand and left me speechless when he thanked me for my service.
Every story is unique in its own way. Some guests would rather talk to me about sports or what kind of music I’m currently listening to rather than talk about the past. There is one thing that remains true in my heart though: Everybody deserves to have their story heard. And, everybody deserves to know that there are people out there that care enough to ask. So next time you see someone on the streets please stop and ask them about their story. You might find me running around the streets of Chicago doing the same.