A Caring Community

posted by Rochester Catholic Worker on June 24th, 2005

by Jesse Lenney, with a lot of help from Judy Thorslund and Mike Lopez

The following is an example of what can be done by helping guys on the street who need a caring community to get back on their feet and out of homeless shelters and subway beds.

It’s been five years since I lived and worked at St. Joe’s [Rochester Catholic Worker house]. My good friend George McVey has asked me to share with you the promising new little community of which I am now a part.

Currently, there are 14 of us residing in two houses in the Market View Heights neighborhood of Rochester, all of whom were formerly homeless, and once a part of St. Joe’s community. Most work low wage service jobs. The low rent each person contributes allows the essential bills to be paid, and for our community to be self-sufficient. We do not rely on grants or other sources of income. We live on a shoestring budget and cannot afford extras, but the advantages of living in community are immense.

We have community members who cannot pay monetarily, so they contribute their gifts and talents to help keep our homes full of love and light for the traveler as well as for each other. One such person has returned to school and is studying to be a medical assistant. His job is to continue his studies so he can move out of poverty. Our community supports him in this 100%. Another dear friend was blinded by a paint ball gun used in an attack by mean spirited vigilantes. He was living under the bridge at the time, and we brought him into our home so he can recover from his injury and receive medical treatment. His gift is carpentry, and he is helping put a kitchen together for us, even while injured!

One of our community members is a woman who came to volunteer at St. Joe’s several years ago, fell in love with the city and its people, and has made Rochester her permanent home. She uses her gifts to make our homes nurturing and is currently planting a garden at the house on Fourth Street. Many other friends who do not live in community with us have donated hours and hours of expertise, love, and labor, helping turn our formerly run-down and beat-up houses into places of pride for us all. We are a home for the formerly homeless, and a beacon for those travelers needing respite from the streets.

My role in this community began as a response to the failure I’ve seen over the years of the charity and rehabilitation models used to subject “homeless” people to all sorts of absurd and degrading things d0ne in the name of helping them. It is my belief that homelessness is not a “problem” that arises from personal substance abuse, the lack of certain job skills, or some other easily quantifiable and grant-fundable personal problem.

I believe homelessness is a condition made necessary by an economy that requires creative people to be idle in order to keep wages low. Wages so low they offer no security against the inevitable crisis brought on by a system that fails to provide adequate healthcare to all, leaving many vulnerable to health crises that cripple their ability to provide for themselves. Our society marginalizes and isolates people, offering no solace, no companionship, and no mutual aid in these trying times. We all can become victims of this “dirty, rotten system,” some hidden away under a bridge, others sleeping in cars, and many hiding in a bottle or pipe, or in jail.

It became clear to me that there was no “solution” to “homelessness.” There would never be enough cots, clothing donations, job training centers, or drug treatment programs. Faced with this reality, and the death of a friend named Johnny Nale, who died in a fire he set to keep warm one winter, made me realize that my efforts had been half-hearted. I decided to change my focus and dedicate my contribution to the memory of Johnny by building strong, independent, viable communities based on respect for each person and the idea that Johnny’s tragedy must not be repeated.

So this is what we are and what we embody. We live together, put up with each other, and we reach out to those we can. We can’t take in everyone–only God can do that–but we do all we can.

Over the last two years, we have fixed walls, plumbed pipes, hung doors, repaired, cleaned, sanded, and painted with the contributions of residents and non-residents alike. Now that the houses are habitable and feel like homes thanks to them, we must look toward other necessities such as replacing windows, doors, gutters, storm windows, etc., to prepare the houses for next winter. Any contribution you can make is welcome.

Both houses need to have basement windows replaced, Rohr Street needs an exterior paint job, Fourth Street needs a front door, a basement door, gutters, heat duct work, and storm windows. Gardening tools and a lawnmower to share between the houses would be a great help along with vacuum cleaners for both houses. Finally, an old, but relatively functioning car would allow Judy to help the residents get to jobs and other important appointments.

If you have any of these items or would like to contribute funds to their purchase or time for their installation, please contact us at 585.615.0207.

Originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Rochester Catholic Worker, a publication of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, Rochester, New York.

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. On November 22, 2005 at 12:25 Molly Miller-Rice said:

    Great to hear all of this Jesse! Sounds like a great community. In case you don’t remember, I served at St. Joe’s in 2000. Hello from the cornfields of Illinois! I am now married and raising 3 children with 2 or 3 more on the way. :)

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