Finding family at the Center for the Homeless
Thomas Bounds | Friday, December 4, 2009
In this column, “The Notre Dame They Know,” I will interview individuals who have been influenced by the University of Notre Dame.
I will seek to discover the unique role that Notre Dame has played in their life and vocational
It is hoped that this column will inculcate a deeper, more honest and more profound love for Our Lady and Her University.
Darkness falls on a chilly evening as Transpo Bus 7 halts just East of the Hesburgh Library. Exiting campus, it turns South, passing through South Bend to stop at the South Street Station.
200 yards further, past empty lots and abandoned buildings, the South Bend Center for the Homeless sits in an old Department Store.
Inside, past the receptionist’s desk, a waiting area and a chapel, Steve Camilleri reclines at a table in the corner of the bustling cafeteria.
Sporting dark pants and a polo shirt, the Long Islander from Levittown — think Billy Joel’s better looking younger brother — begins his story over the muted squeals of babies and congenial side-conversations from residents:
“I was born just outside of New York City. My father was a bartender and my mother worked at a mental health hospital. I went to Notre Dame and graduated in 1994. I did the ACE Program, earned a Masters in Non-Profit Administration, took a job in the Development Office, and got a grant to start NDVision. I volunteered at the Center while a student and after, and was invited to be its Director in August of 2004.
“The Center for the Homeless,” Steve says, “houses 200 residents, 55 of them children, and has provided 45,000 people with food, shelter, skills training and community living since it opened in 1988.”
As Director of the Center, Steve is responsible for heading its administrative functions and for relating directly with residents.
“Part of my mission, and the Center’s mission as a whole,” Steve observes, “is to recognize the God-given dignity and worth of each person here. If we can get our guests to see themselves as promise, as potential, rather than as problem, we’ve been a part of something awesome.”
The Center’s formal mission is to ‘Break the Cycle of Homelessness.’ “It’s lofty, it’s challenging,” Steve says, “but if we can help one person, one family to do that, that’s a gift to the world.”
On the spiritual mission of the Center, Steve observes, “I think of Matthew 25: Have you visited the sick, fed the hungry, helped the homeless? In a sense, this is the Gospel incarnate. This work is done to glorify God.”
Steve encourages others to make the Center a part of their lives.
“You need to get involved here or anywhere that excites your passion to serve because it will ruin you,” he says. “It’s good to be ruined. You won’t look at things the same.
“That’s what college is about: Being ruined and coming out different than you went in. Becoming a better person who is aware of what’s going on around you, contributing to the common good.”
Asked about his own reasons for working at the Center, Steve responds, “I love it … People are honest here. Forget about wearing the masks. We don’t have time for that…You have permission here to let yourself be vulnerable. I’m constantly amazed by the miracles that happen here. And I shouldn’t be amazed or surprised because they keep happening. But it continues to blow my mind.”
To illustrate, Steve shares a story about one of his friends, a resident named John. “John stayed here all last winter on Weather Amnesty, a night at a time. John wanted to move in. I said, ‘John, when you sober up.’ This past February, he finally got here. Everyday he would tell me, ‘I’ve got a day of sobriety, Steve.’
“A day, a week, a month went by. I said, ‘John, when you get to six months, I’ll take you out to lunch.’ On Aug. 14, over lunch, he described the tragic loss of five siblings. One was murdered. He started drinking when he was 13, and hadn’t stopped in over 40 years.
“I was struck by his story and said, ‘Let’s go out to lunch when you have a year of sobriety.’ He turned to me and said, ‘That’s Valentine’s Day.’ I said, ‘John, you’re my Valentine’s Date, and I don’t think my wife will mind a bit.’
“I’m thrilled to take John to lunch on Valentine’s Day. I’m thrilled because he’ll have a year of sobriety and that’s something he hasn’t had in 40 years. I’m looking forward to that more than I’ve ever looked forward to Valentine’s Day. This place is one of the great love stories. I just keep falling deeper in love with it.”
Chad, a resident sitting at the next table, looks up from his late evening snack to echo Steve’s sentiments: “You guys are more of a family to me than my family has been for a long time,” he comments. “I actually feel like I’m going to do something with my life, starting here.
“It’s awesome. I love these guys like they’re my family.”
Tom is a senior living in Morrissey Manor, the greatest of all University dorms. He can be reached at [email protected]
Steve, Director of the South Bend Center for the Homeless, can be reached at [email protected] He encourages you to read anything by Henri Nouwen,
especially Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. Please
e-mail him if you are interested in
volunteering at the Center. He, and everyone else, would love to have your help.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.