By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
Ricky Thompson and his dog, Max, had no place to go when a blast of polar air descended on Louisville in October of 2013. So they hunkered down outside St. Thomas More Church on South Third Street, wet and cold.
Julie Stieren, who works at the parish, spotted the two figures and decided to help. “I told our priest, ‘he won’t make it through the weekend if we don’t do something,’ ” she said.
The parish did do something. They gave Thompson a furnished room — an enclosed porch — in the parish office building. He lived there for the next year. Parishioners and staff did his laundry, fed him and Max and invited them into their community. A veterinarian at the parish even offered services for Max.
Thompson, a disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, helped regularly in the parish’s Twice Blessed Thrift Store — a thriving ministry at the church. And when spring came, he started mowing lawns around the neighborhood. In the meantime, Stieren made it her responsibility to find a more permanent housing solution for Thompson. “I worked on it for about 11 months,” she said, noting that some places had a years-long backlog. Other places refused services because Thompson has a history of drug use and a criminal record.
“There was always a reason they couldn’t help,” she said. In early spring, Thompson suffered a blow — Max was stolen from his room in the parish office. A staff member who witnessed the theft tried to stop it. And the thief — who said he sold the dog — was ordered to pay restitution to Thompson. Max was never found. Thompson said he would have been willing to stay homeless forever if he could have Max back. “He was my heart,” Thompson said in an interview at St. Thomas More. But Stieren, who coordinates religious education, saw a silver lining — most housing options don’t allow pets.
Her efforts finally bore fruit this fall with the help of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Thompson moved into his own room on the society’s Smoketown campus in October. He’s living in one of the society’s 146 permanent-housing units in Louisville. His facility, designed for homeless disabled men, has private rooms, shared bathrooms and a community kitchen. Noting that he is expected to do chores around the facility, Thompson said, “I’m earning my keep and I do like to work. You can’t expect a place to help you if you don’t help the place.”
Stieren said she and other parishioners are glad he has a permanent home. And they’re grateful to have been involved in his life. “On Third Street, you always see someone walking on the street with a grocery cart and you know that’s everything they have,” she said. “But Ricky here brought it home. It opened our eyes to how hard it is to get them help if they don’t have someone to nag like I did. These people need an advocate.”
Father Philip Erickson, pastor of St. Thomas More and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel churches, said the parish had a responsibility to help the way it did. “We all recognized over the course of time that Ricky — in justice — had a rightful demand from us for more,” he said. “There’s a difference between justice and charity. Food, housing and work are not charity issues, they are justice issues. Ricky had a rightful demand from this community. We did only what we should have done.” Father Erickson added that the experience taught him something. “What it helped me understand was the complexity” of homelessness, he said.
“You can’t just say, ‘Get a job. Here’s some food.’ A human life is complex. Some problems they have control over and some they don’t.” Thompson was abandoned as a young child and raised in an orphanage. He was honorably discharged after his service in Vietnam. And then his life became one marked by ups and downs. He’s spent plenty of time living in parks and on the streets. Just before Stieren found him, he had been living with his brother not far from the parish. When his brother died, he was homeless again, living in a wooded area near the church.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul provides permanent housing, such as the place where Thompson lives, because of the complexity that Father Erickson described. “Everyone’s story is different, everyone comes with their own set of circumstances,” said Corey Bledsoe, director of programs for the society. “We have permanent housing where we can work with no definitive time frame and really work on those things that keep them from taking steps forward.
“The ultimate goal is to maximize the level of independence for each particular individual,” he explained. “Case managers try to identify needs, establish plans and goals and provide the resources that women and men need to reach their highest level of self-sufficiency. We expect our residents to transition into independent living. That’s a goal.” Thompson said he’s on a good road now and is grateful for the friendships he made at St. Thomas More. “I’ve got a lot of people here who care for me,” he said. “The church has helped me a lot.”
The parish gave bus tickets to Thompson so he could continue to visit and help at the Twice Blessed shop. And they’re keeping his lawn mower so he can resume his lawn services in the spring.“He will be missed,” said Stieren. “He’s a kind-hearted fellow. He loves people and people love him.”