By Levi Sledd, Centre College
After filling out an impressive number of forms and being Breathalyzed, my classmate Jeffrey and I waited in the brisk air for about an hour for the doors to the chapel/dining hall at St. Vincent de Paul to open. Dinner consisted of tuna casserole salad, fruit salad, and a couple slices of bread.
The portions were pretty large and the food was decent. I expected something more like a cup of tomato soup, perhaps stemming from an overly literal interpretation of the phrase “soup kitchen.”
I also expected more of a somber atmosphere; based on certain class readings, I expected that dinner would last 10 minutes, and there would be hardly any talking. I was surprised to find that at St. Vincent de Paul, at least, people were chatting and joking, and the atmosphere was more like that of a high school cafeteria. We ate and talked with three guys. One had been on the Section 8 Housing waiting for a few years and was about to get a new apartment.
When we were done eating, we went outside and waited for the doors to the chapel to open again for White Flag at 6pm. While we were outside, we talked to a man who was there for White Flag. Homeless for a few years, he sleeps at St. Vincent when he can, but he had also been to other Louisville homeless shelters, he said. Like nearly everyone we talked to, he said that the conditions at St. Vincent de Paul were the best among the homeless shelters in town. Specifically, he mentioned the air mattresses men may sleep on during White Flag.
From the conversations Jeffrey and I had with White Flag residents, we developed a picture of the daily routines of some homeless men, which are busier, higher-tech, and more similar to the routines of people with housing than most people imagine.
Often a daily quest is to find somewhere to charge their smartphone. Many have jobs. However, homeless people face unique challenges to stable employment. One man we talked to was unsure if he could take a job for which he had recently been hired, due to the cost of public transportation.
This drove home the “Catch-22” nature of employment: It’s much easier to find and keep a job if you have your own transportation and home base, but in order to save enough money for a car and an apartment, you need a job. It’s a system that, on its own, would keep homeless people homeless, and shows the need for the kind of long-term and thorough case management that St. Vincent de Paul does.
At 6pm we went into the shelter and set up our air mattresses, with blankets provided by the shelter. After a couple more hours, we went along with a group by bus to an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting.
Along the way I talked to a middle-aged guy who had been at St. Vincent de Paul for 11 months and who was about to move into a three-quarter-way house. He said he used to be involved in drilling and construction before he lost it all to alcoholism. He talked about his former life with surprising calm and candor. “I had a wife, a job, a house, everything… And I threw it all away.”
When we got back from the AA meeting, he told me about daily life at St. Vincent de Paul. One aspect of St. Vincent de Paul that he emphasized was that they have fewer residents, but that they’ll let the residents they do have stay as long as they need to, although their goal is to have you living on your own within a year.
Their recovery program is intense, and life there is highly regimented. Residents have a schedule of chores, classes to attend, and papers to write. They get up at 7:30am, and lights out is at 11pm. When a rule is broken, the group decides a suitable punishment. They could be made to do an extra chore or write a paper. Recovery classes can be an emotional ordeal. According to several people, the hardest part of classes is just getting vulnerable.
I found myself talking about the motivation of homeless people with one of St. Vincent’s residents. “Most people are working hard to get out of the system. But there are some people that are content just to be homeless and take whatever’s given, and will just stay that way their whole lives,” he said.
I don’t doubt the truth of what he said. Yet St. Vincent de Paul, with its challenging program, seems to provide the right incentives, along with the right support, for people to move beyond homelessness.
Throughout the day, there was a sense of normalcy that took me by surprise. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe in my head I had put homeless shelters in the category of depressing places, alongside refugee camps and prisons, and so the sense that my surroundings were okay rather than bad threw me off guard.
Everybody was pretty friendly, and I observed some camaraderie between residents. Though we, as a culture, perceive that homeless people have failed in some big way, the men I talked to do not seem like failures to me. These were mostly regular guys who had landed there by addiction or just bad luck. They had phones, jobs, classes, friends, plans, and interesting lives.
But maybe the relative normalcy of our surroundings is a product of St. Vincent’s approach to homelessness. St. Vincent isn’t a temporary shelter; they don’t have many clients, but they focus more intently on the ones they do have.
The residents spend a lot of time in groups and seem to make friends, at least for the time they were there, and are housed in relative comfort. Life is regimented to provide structure and accountability; long-term recovery is the first priority.
Classes try to root out the personal factors that led to someone becoming homeless in the first place, and the long-term case management helps residents overcome the systemic obstacles to employment and housing. The long-term results of St. Vincent de Paul indicate that their philosophy of who homeless people, are and how to treat them, is the most effective.