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Reaching out

Maria Smith | Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Fifteen years ago, a building called the Marinatha Temple stood across the street from where the South Bend Center for the Homeless stands today. During the winter months, the church ran a program for the homeless, offering soup in the evenings, cots through the night and doughnuts and coffee in the mornings.Today, the winter shelter at the Temple has expanded into one of the best shelters for the homeless in the nation. The South Bend Center for the Homeless does not only provide shelter for over a thousand guests per year and serve around 300 meals per day. The Center’s training programs, drug and alcohol treatment programs and efforts to get its guests into homes, cars and steady jobs help the homeless of South Bend get off the streets and turn their lives around.From the shelter’s beginning, its success has been one of the best examples of cooperation between the South Bend and University communities. The Center for the Homeless gets only 15 percent of the $2.3 million it requires to stay open every year from the government, relying on donations from citizens, businesses, churches and other private organizations for the rest of its funding. In addition to helping the Center open, the University has donated around $150,000 every year toward maintenance, holiday meals and other needs. The Center also relies on donations of leftovers from the Notre Dame dining halls to provide its meals every day. Equally important to helping the Center run are the approximately 60,000 volunteer hours put in by Notre Dame and Saint Marys students and people from the South Bend community every year.”The Center is remarkable in that it’s a coming together of the University, the city, the people of South Bend, the business and religious communities of South Bend,” Father Richard Warner, the chair of the board of directors of the Center for the Homeless, said. “I think, in that sense, it’s unparalleled.”

The beginnings of the CenterThe Center started when a group from the Marinatha Temple decided to try to build a shelter that would provide better services for the homeless. Dave Link, a former dean of the Notre Dame Law School, and D’Arcy Chisholm, then working for the Center for Pastoral Liturgy, borrowed $100,000 from the federal government to put up the money for a newer and bigger building to house the shelter. Link and Chisholm, who had volunteered to help open the overnight shelter at the Temple, had realized the need for a better institution to help the poor in South Bend, and decided to take out the loan even though they were unsure how they would be able to pay it back.”In many ways the inspiration for what happened came from students,” Link said. “There was a wonderful incident one night when an old man came in on a South Bend kind of winter night. He was badly inebriated, and when he sat down on the cot to take off his shoes, he rolled off.”When Link helped the man take off his shoes he found his feet were frostbitten and asked a student volunteer to get cool water to thaw the man’s feet.”I guess he thought I was a priest, because he called me Father,” Link said. “He asked me if God still loved him even though he drank too much, and I told him God loved him, and got him into a cot where he fell asleep.””While he was asleep, one student said, ‘I think we ought to do more for these people,'” Link said. “She thought we ought to teach them a skill.”Link thought back to the incident when he realized the shelter’s new potential, and decided from the beginning that the shelter should be more than just a shelter, bringing in services, St. Joseph and Memorial Hospitals, the Madison Center, the Life Treatment Center, social security representatives and other South Bend organizations to make a sort of “one-stop shopping” for the homeless.After paying the earnest on the building, Link and Chisholm began to search for a way to refurbish the building, finish setting up the shelter and repay their loan. Before taking their proposal to a national foundation, they decided to explain their vision to University President Father Edward Malloy.”I said, ‘We better go tell Malloy what we’re doing or he’ll think we’re crazy,’ which a lot of people thought anyway,” Link said.After reviewing their proposal, Malloy proposed that Notre Dame pay off the loan, put up the money to refurbish the building and lease the building back to the Center for the Homeless for one dollar per year.The University and Bendix Allied Signal, a national company whose president was a Notre Dame graduate, each donated $500,000 dollars to developing the center. Link and Chisholm’s efforts addressed what was becoming an increasingly great need in the South Bend community and across the nation at the time.”Up until that point, you rarely saw families becoming homeless, but now it was actually families with children,” said Drew Buscareno, who served as director of the Center for the Homeless from July 1999 to December 2003 before becoming vice president of university relations at Notre Dame. “The idea was to develop a national model uniting higher education with local institutions. The concept seems simple, but the implementation was revolutionary.”The center first opened its doors on Dec. 18, 1988, six months ahead of schedule. The shelter was called on to open early after a fire at the Morning Side Hotel, an institution where offices of the Madison Center and Hospital had previously helped the many people with mental disorders or drug and alcohol problems who took shelter there. The entire community worked with the shelter to be able to provide services ahead of schedule.”We were still painting, there were no bed and no lockers,” Link said. In order to house the people from the Morning Side Hotel, the Center called Notre Dame and the South Bend Community School Corporation for donations of beds and lockers. Link appealed to the community to find clothes and food for the people at the homeless shelter.”I got on the radio and television and asked for donations, and the response was amazing. It blocked the streets, we filled 16 busses full of food and clothing,” Link said.”It’s a big thing for us that people want to help,” said Tammy Oehm, senior director of Operations and Special Projects, who joined the center shortly after it was founded. “When the center started there were about five employees, and we could not have run without volunteers.”

The service continuesOver the years the Center has developed a wide variety of programs available on-site. Now, the Center is working to become more self-sufficient with programs that generate revenue and move it away from direct monetary donations.Center for the Homeless landscaping services and painting services offer guests at the Center a chance at job training, while they simultaneously raise money that goes back to fund the shelter. Center for the Homeless Cars does not employ shelter guests, but does generate money for the Center. Every year the Center gets cars donated from people who no longer need an old car or students who do not want to take a car home after they graduate, which they either sell at a very reduced price to a guest in need of a car or sell at auction. Car donors also receive a tax break.The Center is working on generating more revenue, but it still relies on volunteers to run. Community volunteers usually work at the desk or in adult tutoring, while student volunteers mostly work in childcare and youth tutoring programs. ND and SMC students in the tutoring programs are paired with a child at the shelter, and come twice every week to help the student with schoolwork. Around 100 students volunteer with children every semester.”It’s great for relationship building and consistency,” said community-based learning coordinator Annie Kelly.”Students are by far the largest chunk of volunteers,” said director of volunteer services Felicia Moodie. “You can definitely tell the difference when there are breaks.”Some students volunteer through the community-based learning sections of First Year Composition, which were first started around eleven years ago. Others get involved through class government or dorm events, and decide to stay and help out after the first event is done.Pasquerilla East senior Kathryn Lent first volunteered through a dorm event, and has stayed for over two years. She organizes a group of about 10 students who go every Friday around 5 p.m. to take the kids from the shelter out to do something fun for a few hours.”Not many things in their lives are structured and consistent, so we try to make sure people go week to week,” said Lent. “It’s great getting to do the things the kids do, you forget what it’s like to be a kid.”One of the most unique programs started by faculty volunteers is great books seminar run by Program of Liberal Studies professors Clark Power and Steve Fallon. The professors teach a seminar based on the ones offered to PLS students, where adult guests can read and discuss classic works and earn college credit. They started the program five years ago after reading about a similar one in New York City, and have about 15 students go through the class every semester.Power and Fallon have found that the students enjoy the chance to discuss great works, and that the class can build a sense of confidence in their students. Far from struggling with the program, the guests have turned out to be some of their most dedicated students, and their life experiences give them a unique insight into the great works of literature and philosophy. “We wanted to donate time and energy, and thought we could use what we do as professors,” said Power. “Often we look down on the homeless, but some people say that by doing this [class], we prove that people who are homeless have the same kinds of abilities and insights as anyone else.”The professors have seen some students recover from severe problems during the course. One former student who recently contacted them used to be addicted to heroin, and is now working on a college degree. Others return to jail or addictions.”We have no illusions that the small part we’re doing can magically turn lives around,” said Fallon. “But it has given us a chance to work with people who are making these kinds of life and death decisions for themselves.”We have visitors come to see the shelter from all over,” said Oehm. “One thing that is difficult to duplicate is the community here, especially at Notre Dame.”

Now and thenWhatever people do to help, they have the satisfaction of knowing they might help change a life.Link likes to tell the story of a man who had his life turned around by a student volunteer.”We had an old guy who used to come into the shelter who was mean when he was drunk, and he was usually drunk,” said Link. “He went through detox about 21 times on police orders, but usually fell right back off the ladder.”The man befriended a Notre Dame student who convinced him to go through rehabilitation again, this time voluntarily.”I don’t know if he’d ever had a friend,” said Link. “But this time he stayed recovering and moved out of the shelter with a woman he met. His body was torn up and eventually he died, but he died with a job, his own place, a wife and respectability.””This has grown into a fine institution, and Notre Dame volunteers made it go,” said Link. “I’m pleased to have been a part and to have gotten the University involved.”