November 13, 2015

From near death to new life: Unlikely friendship changes lives of men who work together to help the homeless

Leo Stenz, left, and Ennis Adams work together to help homeless people in Indianapolis transform their lives. On Oct. 31, the friends posed for a photo, taking a break from their efforts for the Beggars for the Poor ministry, which provides a meal, clothing and socialization for 200 homeless people every Saturday morning in downtown Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Leo Stenz, left, and Ennis Adams work together to help homeless people in Indianapolis transform their lives. On Oct. 31, the friends posed for a photo, taking a break from their efforts for the Beggars for the Poor ministry, which provides a meal, clothing and socialization for 200 homeless people every Saturday morning in downtown Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Leo Stenz uses an unusual word as he shares the story of his friendship with Ennis Adams:


In fact, there is not much that is usual about the close bond between Stenz and Adams—especially the way their relationship began.

As the president of Stenz Construction Company, Stenz has been a longtime, quiet force in the redevelopment of downtown Indianapolis, adding signature stamps on the city with his company’s work on The Madame Walker Theatre, The Glove Factory and the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Beyond buildings, Stenz has also worked to transform the lives of people who live on the streets downtown. A member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, Stenz has long helped to coordinate the efforts of Beggars for the Poor, a volunteer ministry that provides clothing and a meal for about 200 homeless people every Saturday morning.

It was there 15 years ago that Stenz and Adams met. Recalling his life back then, Adams describes it as “a life of drinking, using drugs, being incarcerated, living on the streets, and being close to death.” Then he joyfully adds, “God rescued me and helped turn my life around. God came to me through the care and help of another person, my good friend, Leo.”

So this is a story of friendship, transformation and faith—a story of two men dealing with their own haunting moments who now work together to help people change their lives.

‘He was the kingpin of the group’

Just after nine o’clock on a recent Saturday morning, Stenz and Adams both work the crowd that has lined up in the parking lot of Roberts Park United Methodist Church in downtown Indianapolis. It’s where the Beggars for the Poor ministry sets up every week, and it’s where the homeless often turn to talk with Stenz and Adams.

In Adams, they see a tall, athletic figure who once struggled with the same demons they face on the streets and in their lives. As they talk to him, they seem to want to make sure he’s still doing well—viewing his transformation as a sign of hope for them.

In Stenz, they see a slim, silver-haired figure with a shy, welcoming smile who asks their names, tries to get them to share their stories, and encourages them to change their lives.

Adams remembers his early days of meeting Stenz.

“Leo always brought a different kind of flavor,” Adams recalls. “He brought fun and laughter to whatever he was doing. He brought a little conversation, asking about what was going on with us, what was going on in our families. I looked forward to seeing him. He’d talk to me about stopping drinking and hanging out.

“His sincerity was always there. I always noticed he had something good to say about the worst ones. The worst of the worst were the ones he navigated to.”

Stenz made a point of keeping his focus on Adams during those times.

“Clearly, he was the kingpin of the group,” Stenz says. “I saw how the others respected him. I saw they listened to Ennis.”

At the time, Stenz didn’t know the full details of Adams’ life that led him to end up living on the streets.

He didn’t know that Adams was arrested as a teenager for burglary and spent 5 1/2 years in a juvenile correctional facility. He also didn’t know that after Adams’ release from prison that Adams married his high school sweetheart and they had three children.

“During this time, I was working, helping take care of the kids, and going to church, but I was living a double life,” Adams recalls. “I always found time to hang out on the streets and do drugs on a daily basis. I tried to make it all work together—my job, taking care of the kids, going to church and doing drugs, but something had to give. It eventually caught up to me, and I found myself back in prison and separated from my family.

“When I got out, it was even worse than before. I went right back to the streets. And although I worked a lot, I never had any permanent job. I lived in the streets, drank alcohol and did drugs regularly—and got farther and farther away from my family. This became my way of life, and the years kept going by.”

While those choices and decisions haunted Adams, Stenz had his own haunting time in life.

A ‘haunting’ connection

Right before Stenz started volunteering for Beggars for the Poor about 28 years ago, he felt there was something missing in his life. He thought he was too focused on himself.

“I was looking for some way to get out of my own problems of my little world,” he recalls. “My secretary at the time, Sandy Knox, had started to volunteer for Beggars for the Poor, working out of the back of a truck.

“I have a heart for males who are broken down, and don’t know how to get back on their feet. I tried to reach out of myself, and it was contagious. When these guys know your name and you know their names, there’s a connection. There’s a word that St. Ignatius uses to describe that connection—‘haunting.’ You know them, they know you, and you know they’re living down by the river. It keeps you on focus to do everything you can for them.”

Part of that effort for Stenz includes offering the men work at his construction sites—sometimes for a day, sometimes for longer.

“I always felt it would be good to get these guys in the routine of a job,” he says. “Eighty percent of the time, you’re wrong.”

It’s a success rate that has sometimes led some of Stenz’ staff to raise their eyebrows in a look that suggests, “You really want to try this again, boss?”

Stenz keeps trying.

“We give a lot of people a shot. We gave Ennis a shot.”

From near death to new life

At first, Adams wasn’t willing or ready to take advantage of that shot. He had made steps to change his life by entering an alcohol program at the Salvation Army, but his full commitment wasn’t there until he came “close to death.”

“Leo offered to help me, but I wasn’t ready to share with him because I wasn’t being honest with myself,” Adams recalls. “I wanted to work a program, go to church and continue drinking all at the same time, but it didn’t work. I ended up in the hospital, very sick.

“Finally, I decided that this was it. I got out of the hospital and began working my program with honesty and sincerity. Leo was right there to help me.”

Stenz started Adams as a day laborer for his company. And every day, Adams stopped by Stenz’s office to thank him for the work and the support.

“Over the years, I saw how Leo kept helping people,” Adams says. “They would let him down, and he would still keep helping them. I reached the point where I didn’t want to let him down. Then I wanted to get back to my family.”

Stenz’s willingness to keep giving people chances stems from his embrace of Matthew 18:22, the passage in which Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. Christ’s answer of “70 times 7” has now become a shared motto between Stenz and Adams.

“Where I felt God was moving me was to encourage people like Ennis. I said, ‘Ennis, you have all the right stuff. You have to keep going,’ ” Stenz says. “I was trying to be a friend. That’s how you have to be with these guys. You don’t know where God is leading them, but you see they have worth.”

Other staff members at the construction company also began to see Adam’s worth as an employee and a person.

“Everyone could see that Ennis was excited about his job. I could see the switch had flipped with Ennis, and my wife particularly saw it,” Stenz says.

Adams has been a permanent, full-time employee of the company for the past seven years. During that time, he has never missed a day of work. He cleans and takes care of the office, the parking structure and the condo area of the company’s downtown complex. And every work morning, he is at the entrance of the building, greeting his fellow employees with a smile and words of encouragement.

“It’s just going the extra mile,” Adams says. “I got that from Leo.”

The blessings run both ways.

‘God is working through me’

“There’s a bond of friendship,” Stenz says. “We have a lot in common. We love sports. We play basketball together. We’re able to discuss things. I use him as my street professional. I say, ‘What about this guy?’ Ennis has taken on a role that says, ‘Hey, I’ve made it, and you can make it, too.’ He’s following God’s prompting.”

That prompting has led Adams to be there with the Beggars for the Poor ministry every Saturday morning.

“The guys say, ‘We just want to see you,’ ” Adams says. “I look forward to going down there. Most of the guys just need to be talked to and inspired. I try to encourage them to lead a spiritual life, to reach out to others.”

He’s also involved in another effort with Stenz to transform the lives of homeless people.

Since the spring of 2014, Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis has been the site of a retreat program for homeless people. During these twice-a-year, overnight retreats, the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP) uses a faith-based approach in helping the homeless turn around their lives. Stenz is one of the leaders of the men’s retreat while Adams went to the first one as a participant.

“The retreat strengthened me in so many ways,” Adams says. “I felt God’s presence and peace, and it helped me to continue in my sobriety. I decided I wanted more of that feeling so I decided to become a witness for future retreats.

“Since I’ve been involved with ISP, I’ve gotten much closer to God than I’ve ever been because I spend more time with him. I look forward to telling people where I was and where I am now. By telling my story, I feel as if God is working through me to help them.”

It’s a story of renewal.

“I live in my own home. I have a job that I love, I am a member of the ISP team, and I have many friends,” Adams says. “Best of all, I have a great relationship with all three of my children. And for the icing on the cake, all three of them are college graduates. I couldn’t be prouder.”

It’s also the story of two men who have transformed each other’s life.

“At this point in our friendship, it’s a spiritual friendship,” Stenz says. “We can share our faith. We talk about it. That doesn’t happen with everybody. We don’t hold anything back. He knows my downside, and I know his downside.

“To me, it’s exciting to see someone pull himself up through the grace of God and a lot of perseverance—which Ennis has. And for those who aren’t where he is, it’s still seeing the face of Christ in them. It encourages me that you can’t write the person off. It keeps me balanced and keeps me going.”

For Adams, it’s all a matter of continuing to strive forward, knowing he has a friend on his side.

“I’ve learned how to get up after falling down. Part of getting up is helping others so they don’t make the same mistakes. I learned that from Leo. And I’m grateful to God for letting me be this way.

“God has just put this desire in my heart to be a better person.” †

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