February 7, 2014

‘There’s a lot of need out there’: Ministries, outreaches tackle ongoing challenge of helping homeless during brutal winter

After giving him a dish of lasagna and a pair of pants, volunteer Kathleen Murphy takes time to talk with a visitor to the Garden Door Ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. During this brutal winter in Indiana, the Garden Door Ministry is one of the Catholic efforts that have reached out to the homeless and other people in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

After giving him a dish of lasagna and a pair of pants, volunteer Kathleen Murphy takes time to talk with a visitor to the Garden Door Ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. During this brutal winter in Indiana, the Garden Door Ministry is one of the Catholic efforts that have reached out to the homeless and other people in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The doorbell rang on another bitter, below-zero-wind-chill day, letting Dave Bartolowits know there was another person in need shivering outside the rectory door of St. John the Evangelist Parish in downtown Indianapolis.

Bartolowits was nearing the end of his two-hour volunteer shift at the parish’s Garden Door Ministry, a ministry that serves hot meals and provides warm clothing every weekday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to the city’s homeless.

As he headed toward the door, the violinist for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had just finished telling a story about a young man who recently approached him on a downtown street, asking for money for food.

“He was just wearing a sweatshirt, and he looked like he was having hypothermia,” Bartolowits recalled. “I told him that St. John’s was a place he could go for a hot meal, a coat, a hat and gloves—and I gave him directions. He clearly needed everything.”

The need for food, clothes and shelter has been constant in a brutal winter marked by soaring snow totals and dangerously plunging cold temperatures in Indiana.

Just as constant has been the Catholic response to that need, from the efforts of volunteers to the commitment of archdiocesan Catholic Charities.

“We always try to provide a sandwich and water, but during this cold stretch of weather, we have been serving hot meals, thanks to the generosity of donors,” said Bartolowits, coordinator of the Garden Door Ministry. “We’ve served spaghetti, lasagna, chili and bean soup. There are times when we serve 70 meals a day.

“We also provide limited clothing. We have a room where we store coats, shirts, hats, pants. And we have some blankets we’re handing out, again thanks to the generosity of donors.”

The doors to the parish church are open into the evening, offering people a place to “stay warm, to pray, to get out of the weather,” Bartolowits said.

“We’re trying to provide an atmosphere of hospitality for everyone who comes to our door. It’s a way to live out the call of Christ to serve our brothers and sisters.”

There have even been times when the hospitality has led to a life change for homeless people, according to the parish’s director of catechesis and discipleship, Joshua Schaffner.

“It’s our hope to empower our neighbors to move on to the next stage of their lives—to find housing or employment or, in some cases, both,” Schaffner said.

Tireless efforts to help

Ways to step up and help the homeless and others this winter
 
For anyone wanting to help the homeless or other people in need during this brutal winter in Indiana, here is contact information for several places and agencies that are involved in such efforts:
 
- Catholic Charities. Visit the website, www.archindy.org/cc, or call 317-236-1404 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1404.
  
- Garden Door Ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Call the parish office at 317-635-2021.
 
- Holy Family Shelter. Call the shelter at 317-635-7830.
 
- St. Vincent de Paul Society. Visit the website, www.svdpindy.org, or call 317-687-1006.

Throughout the winter, the staff at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis has answered a steady flow of desperate calls from families seeking a place to stay.

“We say that homelessness doesn’t know a season. Unfortunately, homelessness doesn’t know a temperature either,” said Christina Davis, director of operations of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities shelter.

When the usual capacity of 23 families has been reached, staff members have worked tirelessly to contact other shelters that serve the homeless.

“A lot of people ended up sleeping on the floor or on the couch at a family member’s house. Sometimes, there have been as many as 12 people in a one-bedroom apartment,” Davis said. “We’ve had a lot of large families call us. Some families live in two different locations until they can find a shelter where they can live together.”

The huge snowfall amounts—about 28 inches in Indianapolis in January—have increased problems for the homeless.

When nearly a foot of snow fell in Indianapolis in early January, the combination of treacherous streets, bitter cold temperatures and limited public bus service prevented many people who live at Holy Family Shelter from getting to their jobs and making the money they need to leave the shelter and find a place to live.

The weather has also affected food supplies at the shelter.

“We had people out of work and the kids were out of school, and that increased the amount of food we were going through,” Davis said. “When the real big storm hit, there were 70 residents in the building, and they were all eating every meal here.”

The shelter could use donations of cereals, frozen meats and other food items, Davis noted.

Even with the challenges of weather, the Holy Family Shelter staff has kept a focus on helping its residents pursue job searches and explore housing options.

“We just try to keep our families motivated—to keep working on their goals, to help them make the transition from here,” Davis said. “Once we help them, we can help the next family who needs help.”

An eye-opening experience

That desire to help this winter has also inspired the efforts of the young adult volunteers of Operation Leftover.

About 15 young adults met at St. John the Evangelist Church on the evening of Jan. 16 to walk the streets of downtown Indianapolis to distribute blankets, hats, gloves and a few sleeping bags to homeless people who didn’t have a place to stay.

“One guy had just gotten out of prison, and he was glad we stopped by,” said Andrew Costello, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis who started the outreach program. “And we stopped when we saw four young men staying under one of the bridges near [Bankers Life] Fieldhouse.

“People were saying that it’s rough out there. One of my friends who was with us that night had been going through some struggles, but seeing the people out there on the street was eye-opening for him.”

The Operation Leftover group gave away about 30 blankets, hats and gloves to about 15 people that night.

“We always run out of what we have,” said Costello, who noted that the group will be back on the streets on Feb. 13. “There were a lot of new faces this time. They were friendly, and they let us come and pray with them. We’re well-received. A lot of folks like us to hear their stories.”

When Costello was asked about how people can help the efforts of Operation Leftover, he said their storage capabilities are limited so he recommended that people make donations to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Costello said that all the efforts to help the homeless and other people in need are “building the kingdom of God.

“There’s a lot of need out there, and we give people hope. For those of us who have a warm place to live, there’s a hunger and a need to help people, to be good stewards of what we have. There are a lot of generous people who want to help.”†

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