Bringing Hank in from the Cold

Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received. - Rule of Benedict 

Hank had been sleeping on benches at Starved Rock State Park near LaSalle/Peru, Ill., since summer. A polite and gentle man, Hank had graduated from college and attended medical school before being sent to Viet Nam. He had returned frightened of noise and commotion, and had taken refuge in the quiet of nature.

But nature was turning colder and less hospitable. With red and gold leaves collecting on Hank's jacket as he slept, park authorities – never thrilled to have a homeless guy lurking about – were getting vehement about their problem. They called the police again, and thanks to a determined Benedictine Sister, they finally had somewhere to take him.

"We had just opened a homeless shelter in LaSalle/Peru," Sr. Margaret Suerth, OSB, shelter founder and homeless advocate, says. "We had worked on getting one established for months, and finally had found two churches in the area that were willing to open their doors once a week. It was a lot of work, but worth it."

Work, indeed. Sr. Margaret and her volunteers had to haul mattresses, bedding, dishes and food from one church to the other during those early years, as the shelter location changed every night. At first, it only operated three nights a week, leaving guys like Hank on their own the other nights. Some of them, like Hank, walked the distance between locations just to have a warm and safe place to sleep. That meant a lot of walking: two of the churches were 16 miles apart.

Eventually Sr. Margaret and the other volunteers found enough churches to keep the shelter open every night of the week. With donations and grants, they also were able to buy enough mattresses and bedding to outfit every location permanently.

Permanently, that is, until the churches wanted their spaces back. "We were back at the drawing board," Sr. Margaret says. "Everyone seemed to be in favor of having a homeless shelter, but no one wanted it in their backyard. We spent months attending City Council meetings. Finally, we found space in both Ottawa and LaSalle/Peru which works wonderfully for everyone."

Like most shelters, occupants must be in for the night by 10 p.m. and out for the day by 7 a.m. Dinner and breakfast are served. Two sleeping areas – one for women and one for men – adjoin a recreation room that offers TV and card tables for clients that sometimes include entire families.

"In the 13 years I have worked with homeless people, I have met only one person who chose to live that way," Sr. Margaret says. "Most have problems, like Hank. Some are down on their luck. But they are all God's people and deserve our help."

Sr. Margaret no longer volunteers at the shelters – she has moved back to the monastery in Rock Island – but, thanks to her hard work and determination, people like Hank are getting the help they need.

"We got Hank connected with the Veteran's Administration," Sr. Margaret says. "They agreed to pay for his housing and expenses. He moved into a high rise right next to the shelter, and still comes over for meals occasionally. You've never met a nicer person. You have no idea how grateful I am to have been able to help such people. It's been a real gift."
*Hank is not his real name.