St. John's Shelter

Michele Steeb

Viewpoints: More services needed to combat homelessness

Published: Saturday, Mar. 22, 2014 - 12:00 am

On a recent Saturday morning, I received the call that no parent is ever prepared to receive. Rebecca had been shot.

Rebecca had been wandering the streets Friday night in early March. However, unlike the dangerous and unproductive wandering of her former days, Rebecca was with members of her church, Victory Outreach. They were trying to deliver hope to those entrapped by a life of drugs and crime – a life Rebecca finally and thankfully escaped a little more than a year ago.

Every Friday, Rebecca and her church meet at Mack Road and Center Parkway and are deployed to different areas of need in the community. This particular Friday, they were sent to 47th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. At approximately 11 p.m., they came across two women who asked Rebecca’s group for their prayers. They all joined hands, formed a circle and bowed their heads. Then the shots came.

Rebecca was hit in the arm and in the foot in the drive-by shooting. One of the other church members was shot through the pelvis, sustaining more serious injuries.

I couldn’t help but think of the irony of this situation. For much of her adult life, Rebecca wandered those same streets looking for and causing trouble. She could have easily been one of the people in the car, shooting at those who eventually helped her escape from that life.

As soon as the shock subsided and I realized that Rebecca was OK, I started to think about how in the world we got to this place. How did we end up in a place where we are spending more on our prisons than we are on colleges? How did we end up in a place where we put ourselves in grave danger by trying to help those who are not yet in a place to help themselves?

Rebecca is not my child. But she is part of our St. John’s family. Rebecca came to us addicted to drugs, abused by multiple boyfriends – including the father of her children – and abandoned by her family, who did not support the lifestyle she was leading.

A mother of two children, ages 4 and 6, she had no road map out of the hell in which she found herself, nor did she have the tools to begin to make the changes to climb out. But she did have the strength to say “enough is enough” and find her way to St. John’s.

Today, Rebecca celebrates 14 months of sobriety. Her spirit is alive and contagious. She is an empowered parent and an active participant in her life. She just completed employment training at Plates Café. She is a role model for everyone who meets her – to her fellow clients, to her family, with whom she is now reunited, to the employees of St. John’s and to her customers at Plates.

Rebecca’s story gives me great hope. However, it also serves as a reminder that we need to make some dramatic changes in how we deal with issues of poverty, both fiscal and spiritual, if we want to bring true light into the lives of those overwhelmed by darkness.

To encourage real and lasting change, we need to move beyond the common definition of assistance – housing, food and clothing – to offer doorways to change for those in need. We need to help them learn skills and empower them to take responsibility for their lives.

Rebecca made the difficult decision to change. She chose a doorway that required her to do some important things: Operating within a structure that includes waking up at 6 a.m. daily; becoming sober; learning to actively and responsibly parent; and spending six months in job training.

Not all homeless people need to enter this same doorway. Yet, current homeless policy encourages a one-size-fits-all approach, including moving the homeless from the streets into permanent housing as quickly as possible. Even if this were the right solution for every homeless person, there is not enough housing to meet the current demand.

There is also very little funding available for the services they will then need to develop the tools, and receive the ongoing encouragement, to build productive lives. Saying that the solution to all homelessness is “housing” is like saying that every child struggling in school needs a math tutor to improve his or her performance.

I am happy to report that Rebecca is on the rapid mend. Though her assailants remain at large, she planned on going back out on the streets the next Friday night, boot-on-foot and all, to continue to try and uplift those who need real and lasting change in their lives. Rebecca embodies the change that she wants to see in the world.

Michele Steeb is CEO of St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children.

Read more articles by Michele Steeb

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