Only a few blocks from the spires and gargoyles of the University of Chicago, but far removed from the neatly kept houses and clipped lawns of Hyde Park in every important sense, squats an odd-looking building without any identifying signs. Its windows are covered with crosshatched metal bars, and a 12-foot-high chain-link fence topped with shiny, spiraling razor wire encloses a concrete pad and a small yard. At 10 in the morning, two vehicles are parked within the fence; a couple of hours later, their places have been taken by women and small children, the latter pushing themselves about on tricycles or stumping along, piston-legged, while their mothers watch.
Inside, the small lobby is dominated by a huge crucifix on one wall; opposite it beam twin images of Richie Daley, one for each of the founders of this place, signed identically with best wishes in silver ink. Squeezed between the hallway and a large pass-through to the kitchen is a wall covered with plaques, awards from governmental and Roman Catholic agencies. Beneath the crucifix, a young black woman and her baby doze in an aging comfy chair.
The Saint Martin de Porres House of Hope, at 65th and Woodlawn, is a shelter for homeless women and children. It's a pragmatic, dynamic institution, headed by a pair of pragmatic, dynamic women. Sister Connie Driscoll and Sister Therese O'Sullivan, who founded the shelter in 1983, rehabbed the building themselves, knocking out part of a brick wall, putting in lintels, sleeping in the kitchen. They started it with $15 and 19 beds; today, their annual budget is $240,000 for 140 beds, "and we still haven't solved the problem," says Sister Connie.
Saint Martin de Porres was a 17th-century black Hispanic, a Peruvian, says Sister Connie. A member of the Dominican order, he helped and protected women and children and the poor generally. Beatified in the 1950s, and more recently promoted to full sainthood, he seemed a logical choice of patron to Sisters Connie and Therese when they planned their house.
Sister Connie, a Missionary Sister of the Poor, does not match most people's mental image of a nun. She is anything but reticent. The black patch over her left eye (she had a stroke some years ago) and the long brown cigarettes she occasionally puffs give her a faintly rakish air. The remaining bright blue eye gleams with intelligence, humor, and when she gets going, fire. Her voice is low and gravelly. At 56 her hair is gray, chopped in a short who-cares nun's cut. She wears navy shorts and knee socks on a hot July day; a silver cross on a chain is the main sign of her vocation. Once a lawyer, she decided she didn't care for the law a long time ago and gave it up. She has been a nun since 1982. She and Sister Therese, who's small, graying, and quiet, are the adoptive parents of a frisky five-year-old with the imposing name of Mary Kathleen O'Sullivan-Driscoll, more commonly known as Molly. Molly's natural parents, both schizophrenics, are institutionalized; she was considered at risk and "unadoptable." The nuns, who arranged a private adoption, claimed her a little more than an hour after her birth. Today she seems happy and healthy.
The upstairs is officially given over to the convent, with a small chapel whose window overlooks a vacant city-owned lot, now abloom with purple wildflowers. (Drug deals are a regular feature of one corner of that lot, according to Sister Connie.) There are also bedrooms here for the two nuns and a third woman, Lorett Guest. Finally there's the office, dominated by a desk, a large computer, and a bookcase, filled mostly with religious titles and topped with stacks of hand-labeled videotapes: everything from Serving the Homeless to War and Remembrance.
Downstairs are two big rooms filled with bunk beds and cribs, arranged so that each family can have a small space to itself. (Private rooms are absolutely out of the question in a shelter, says Sister Connie--they lead to drug use, drinking, and child abuse.) There are also showers and toilets; a dining room; and a big, efficient kitchen that Sister Connie says she designed to feed 500 in a hurry. The shelter actually has two buildings--this one, for women and children, and another nearby, in a former school, for pregnant and parenting teens. (Sister Connie's niece, Connie Lynn van Oss, lives in the second building and oversees the program for teenagers.) A ground-breaking ceremony for an addition to the women's and children's building is scheduled for late August.
At midday this building is thronging with women and children. The children in particular are friendly and polite, saying hello to Sister Connie and her visitor and "excuse me" as they wriggle through the human barrier to outdoor play. Everything is clean and in order; those who stay at Saint Martin de Porres House of Hope abide by strict rules.
Saint Martin de Porres, says Sister Connie, is one of only two completely private shelters--meaning they receive no government aid--for the homeless in the city of Chicago; the Pacific Garden Mission is the other. So fiercely protective are the nuns of their independence and their ethics that they do not even accept funds from the Roman Catholic Church, and they have been known to be selective about the foundations and private donors with whom they deal.
They see their mission as much more than just providing shelter; they would like to educate these women, get them off welfare and into productive employment. The staff teaches the women the skills they need to live more rewarding lives, and there's a full-time "case manager" to help them find jobs.
Sister Connie also heads the mayor's task force on the homeless. She speaks regularly on the subject, to various churches and civic groups "and anybody who can pay me $50," though usually she's somewhat better paid than that.
She never really planned to open a shelter. "I was doing ministry down in New Mexico and Colorado," she says, "and came up here just to visit my sister, who was getting married in Milwaukee. I stopped in Chicago on my way back, to visit the nuns who taught me in high school. And I just stayed--because they showed me what was going on with the hungry. And of course we hadn't even heard of homelessness then, in '82. Nobody really talked about homelessness . . . it was a new phenomenon for all of us. They convinced me that this was the place to stay and help. So we opened a shelter, and we've been here ever since."
Saint Martin de Porres, though it limits itself to women and children, "is a full-service program," says Sister Connie. We have drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling, we do life-skills training, stress counseling, we have our own GED program, we have our own literacy-training program, we have a preschool here for the children who live here, we have a medical clinic--the whole bit. Everything on premises."
The average length of a stay at the shelter is 76 days, but, Sister Connie points out, that figure tells only part of the story. "That varies according to the time of the year it is, and the reasons for clients' homelessness." Sister Connie says there are basically three different "homeless" populations, and each has different needs.
"Those homeless people who come in one day and are just in between apartments are usually out within a day or two. It's unnecessary for them to be counted within the homeless population, because they're not really homeless. They may have had to give up their apartment on the 28th, and they can't get into their new place on the first, and so they come into a homeless shelter. Why, I don't know. Probably because of dysfunctional family situations where they can't go and live with anyone else."
The second part of the homeless population are homeless primarily because they're drug and alcohol abusers: "They've had their children taken away, or it's been threatened that they're going to be taken away, and so they come in to get some kind of counseling and some kind of stability.
"Then, of course, there are the long-term homeless, people who've come from dysfunctional families, who can't quite get their lives together, who perhaps were pregnant for the first time at the age of 15, who may now have four or five children. Or they're very young--18, 19, 20 years old--and have not been able to put their lives together yet. They have an average education--self-reported, of course--of about tenth grade; when they test out, it's generally seventh or eighth grade. They are now third-generation welfare recipients, and have not really set any goals or patterns in their life. They stay here much longer than the others stay. So when we give an average length of stay, we always have to break it down into that."
Sister Connie reports seeing considerable change in the shelter population since 1983--it's gotten younger--although she grants that some of the differences may be due to changes in the kinds of people admitted. "Originally we would just take everyone in--mental illness, drug, alcohol, everything. We haven't been able to do that as much now, because of our commitment to the women with their children. And the children have become a big thing with us, to make sure that they're safe and secure. At any given time, we may have as many as 18 to 20 newborn babies. So if we take mentally ill people and those active drug users, then we have a real problem with the newborn babies, because you never know what [those adults] are going to do.
"Right now, we're seeing pretty young people. I'm discounting, now, the pregnant-teen house, because that's a separate program--and many of them may not truly be homeless. They may be having problems with their own parents because of the pregnancy, and so they're not truly a part of the homeless population, although they're counted as part of it. But we're seeing some pretty young folks--20, 21, 22, three small children, can't quite cut it, have absolutely no idea about budget and money management. They get into a situation where they've rented an apartment and it's $450 a month, and they're only getting $350, and they think they can sell their food stamps and make it. At some point they're going to fall behind, because they just can't do it."
Foolish and ill-informed choices are an aspect of the homeless problem that "people wouldn't talk about before. They wouldn't talk about the fact that in all of this population there was such a serious problem with drugs and alcohol, and lack of personal responsibility and accountability. They just kept screaming that it was all housing, and as soon as we build houses for everybody in the United States, everybody's going to live happily ever after. Well, we all know that isn't true. Just based on what we see, we know that isn't true."
What does she think the answer is, then? "Oh, I don't think there's any one answer. I think the entire public-welfare system has to be revamped. I think the public-welfare system does everyone a disservice--the people who are paying for it, for one thing, and the people who are using it, because it really does lock people into poverty. And try and get off of public aid! If you try and get a job, the minute you start to work, your public-aid grant drops; if you're only making $4.85 an hour and you have to start paying baby-sitters and you have to worry about transportation, it doesn't make any sense to get off public aid.
"How do you find good day care? There are a lot of day cares I would never put a child in. [The mothers] are caught in a trap. I think the public-welfare system is just ridiculous."
When asked what she'd propose as an alternative, Sister Connie laughs and says, "Ohhh, I'm not that smart. I think there are a whole lot of good economists out there and financial wizards that could say how we could revamp the system to move people off of public aid, and not get 'em started on it to begin with." She notes that "when public aid first came into being, in the 40s, it was only supposed to be a stopgap measure, between jobs, just to help people out, to get over the hump. It was never meant to be a total way of life, which it has become--third generation, as I said."
She stresses that she's not talking about clients' abuse of the welfare system, but about the basic weaknesses of the system itself. "When you're living in deep, deep poverty, what constitutes abuse? I think what I'm really talking about is the fact that whenever you hand out a dole to someone, and don't require a responding, positive action from them--other than to sign their name and cash the check--then, I think, we do a disservice to everyone. And when that money is then used irresponsibly, not because they intentionally do it but because they don't know any other way, can we be surprised?"
Sister Connie points out that 61 percent of the people who enter the shelter system do so because they've been evicted, "not because they couldn't pay the rent, but because they didn't pay the rent. Well, why didn't they pay their rent? They didn't pay the rent because they used the money for a high-ticket item; they may have used it for drugs and alcohol. They may have decided that they didn't like the landlord.
"You ask them, 'Why didn't you pay your rent?' 'Oh, he didn't deserve the money anyway.' 'Well, didn't you know you were going to be evicted?' 'Well, someone told me they couldn't put my stuff out on the street.' So I say to them, 'Even if they told you that, why would you want to deprive this person of the rent?' No goals, no responsibility, everything is just going to be floating along, and somebody's going to take care of me. And I think that's what the public-welfare system has done to people. It has given them this little click in the back of their minds, that no matter what I do, someone is gonna take care of me. So I don't have to do anything for myself."
She is, she cautions, speaking in generalities: "There are some people who detest public aid who are on public aid and really want to get off. They don't have the education to do it. Hopefully, that's one of the new things that's going to come out of the new sheltering systems that are being put in, an emphasis on education--if you can get the liberal left to get off the bandwagon about 'you can't force people to do things because you think it's right.' Well, maybe they can't, in publicly operated shelters and publicly funded shelters. But as a private shelter, we can make it a part of our contract--and we do."
According to Sister Connie, at Saint Martin de Porres a lot of women have asked for educational opportunities--and others have had education pushed at them. "Yes, we do force 'em. For those who say, 'I'm not going to go to the classes,' I simply say, 'Then you have no right to live in our house, because this is what our house is all about. And you know this up front. So if you don't want to live here, you're going to have to go somewhere else.'"
The women who stay have to learn how to budget their money--and they're required to save 70 percent of their public-aid income, in the form of money orders, so that when they leave they have a nest egg to take with them. They take classes in everything from reading and math to "life skills"--the things that most people take for granted, like how to cook, how to shop, how to clean. Everyone has chores to do; each woman must keep her own area clean, do her own laundry, and be responsible for all of her children. "I think it's a sense of responsibility that you have to instill in people," says Sister Connie, "that at some point, someone isn't always going to be there to bail you out. Maybe that's an upper-middle-class way of thinking. I don't think it is. I think everyone has got to show accountability and responsibility in their own life.
"I see what goes on right here around me in Woodlawn. I see the people standing around on the corners, I see the drug deals going down, day in, day out, day in, day out. I'll see 40 or 50 people converging on that corner over there. You can't tell me they went out and earned all that money they just spent on drugs. They didn't. Some of it comes from their general-assistance checks; some of it comes from their public-welfare checks." She adds sympathetically, "You can understand why it's happening."
Bad timing got Sister Connie into a flap recently. The July 8 New York Times published an article about the professional homeless activist Mitch Snyder shortly after his suicide in his Washington, D.C., shelter. Sister Connie had criticized Snyder in an interview that took place in January, well before his death. Though the reporter had the grace to say that the interview predated Snyder's suicide, he chose to include quotes from Sister Connie that, three days after Snyder had killed himself, seemed coldhearted and in bad taste.
The writer noted Sister Connie's criticisms of "Mr. Snyder and others for not emphasizing mental illness, drug abuse, and a lack of personal responsibility as causes of homelessness." He also said that she was irritated by Snyder's emphasis on providing more and more low-income housing, and quoted her as saying that Snyder "has done more to damage the cause of homelessness than anyone I know." He added that "She declined to comment . . . saying that to do so would be inappropriate so soon after Mr. Snyder's death."
"I'm in real trouble over that one, I'm afraid," says Sister Connie with a deep sigh. "The advocates will go after me, but that's just the way it is. I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it.
"I have a real problem with some of the advocates, about their approach to the problem. Many of the advocates--and I mean many of them--are around the homeless only peripherally. They've never lived and worked in a shelter system. They've never really become a part of what goes on day in and day out and the struggle on both sides, of those operating the shelters and those living in the shelters. . . . How do they know what they need, if they've never lived with 'em, to find out what's going on with 'em? You can sit and talk to people all day long and hear their story, but if that story isn't the truth, then all that talking didn't do anything."
These advocates, she adds, are usually very well-intentioned people, members of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the Inter-Faith Council, or some other group, people who have perceived a problem and are trying to do something about it. "In a sense, we're advocates. There's no animosity or bitterness between us." But she feels that some advocates of the homeless are not fully informed, and so sometimes do more harm than good to the cause for which they're working.
"I think that when [some advocates] started in on this business of having people down there screaming and hollering and stomping at the mayor's office about housing--without looking at what is the real cause of homelessness here--and they demand more housing for the poor, they hurt that cause. Yes, I grant you, we do need more affordable housing! But it's not the only issue! The big issue is, once you get all of that housing for them, how are they going to take care of it? And I speak from experience on this.
"A woman gave us a building over on Marquette, a 13-unit apartment building that was in terrible, terrible shape. In fact, when I walked in, after she'd already signed the deed over, I almost fainted. I thought, 'My God, now I know why she gave us the building.' We spent in excess of $200,000 bringing that building up to meet code. We rehabbed all those apartments. I mean, we gutted 'em. Put people in there, to rent. Low-income. Low rent, $225 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, all rehabbed, beautiful.
"Then you walk in an apartment, and you walk past the bathroom, and all of a sudden you think, 'Wait a minute, why does that bathroom look so different?' And all of a sudden you realize, 'Hey! What happened to the tile? All beautiful tile--the same tile we put in here--where's that nice tile? Why's this bathroom painted purple?' They took the tile off, took it down to 63rd Street, and sold it! 'Where's the new toilet I just put in here? Why is this window broken?' 'Well, my son put a basketball through it.' 'Why didn't you have it replaced?' 'Well, it's not my responsibility! You own the building!'
"Well, wait a minute! This is crazy! Every single person that we put into that building over there treated us like that. Unfortunately, two of them came from this house and were longtime residents here, not just in and out.
"Well, it didn't take me long to get rid of the building. Did they pay their rent on time? Not one. The only ones who paid their rent on time were the two residents that lived in there when we took the building over, who had never been homeless in their lives, who had not been a part of any program at all, whose rent was on time every single month. You never heard from them unless there was a major problem--maybe a pipe was leaking, then they'd call you. They put their garbage out, they didn't stand up on the balcony and throw it so that it hit the tree, and then let it hang out all over the tree.
"So are we talking housing now? What about teaching people how to live in that housing? [In the cases of the women who'd lived at the shelter] now you know why they'd been evicted before. They told us they got bum raps before, it wasn't their fault, the whole bit, so we believed them, we said, 'OK, you're in.'
"So we know, firsthand, what that's like. The people who own that building now, people I know very, very well, are going through the same thing. It's a hassle to even get people to pay their rent on time. We spent over $200,000 on the building; they've spent at least $100,000, $150,000--putting in a new fence, so that they're secure, putting in new doors, so they have the buzz-in doors, new mailboxes, finished new apartments in the basement. I mean, everything. And they're still getting the same hassles."
So what's the answer? "As long as public aid continues to lay out the money, so that they don't have to take any responsibility, it's very simple. Who're you gonna garnishee to get that money, right? You can't go after the state!"
Does she propose just cutting off the state programs? Sister Connie can predict the protests to that: "'The children are going to suffer.' And I know we have to take that into account. But I still think that people should only have X number of months where they would be entitled to public welfare, and they have to show progress toward getting off of it. I know that's a major revamping of the public-welfare system, but I really believe it has to be done soon."
One possible model might be the present unemployment-compensation scheme: people who lose their jobs receive money only for a limited amount of time, can earn up to half the amount of their benefits before they're docked, and have to demonstrate that they're trying to find work. "And they say, 'What about the mother with small children who's incapable of doing that?' Then I think somebody ought to start stepping in and getting some education going somewhere.
"Another way to prevent people from spending their money on things that they shouldn't is a direct-payment voucher system for the landlord. The food-stamp program is in absolute chaos. Absolute chaos. I see, on 63rd Street, food stamps passed from one hand to another continuously, every single time I go there. They stand right out in front of the currency exchange and exchange the food stamps for cash, and walk right across the street to the liquor store, or down to the drug dealer, or into the clothing store, and come out with all this stuff. That was not what the food-stamp program was intended for. I think there should be a voucher system there, with the grocery stores.
"I think we've gotten ourselves into such utter chaos with these public-welfare programs that it's going to take years and years of very stringent law just to straighten it out."
Sister Connie says she doesn't know how to make people responsible without imposing responsibilities on them, which is what happens at her shelter. "And," she says, "I have nuns in Boston that come after me all the time, that just have hysterics because we operate our house in the way we do: they have to be in at a certain time, they have to do chores, they have to be part of the GED classes. And [the Boston nuns] tell me that I'm violating the women's rights by making them do that, that we ought to be running a free and open house here. I say, 'Have you ever lived in a shelter? And would you know what chaos is? Can you imagine what it would be like living here without rules?' They have to make their own life choices, but as long as they're living here in my house, they're going to have to follow the rules.
"We know what it's like just on weekends, when things are a little bit more relaxed. Weekends are free for them, other than just doing their regular chores. And they're at loose ends--they don't even know what to do with themselves. And then they get to arguing and fighting, and the kids--some child looks at another child, and a fight breaks out, and pretty soon the parents are into it. When things are too relaxed, they get out of hand.
"And it isn't just in the hot summer, it's in the winter. And it's not because it's a shelter. It's just people, living together. It's the same thing in the military, and even in our own [religious] communities. Everybody doesn't just automatically love each other! And the advocates have got to realize that living in a shelter situation is tenuous at best, and they can't just go around shooting their mouths off about what we ought to be doing for the homeless people, without bringing into account all of the things the homeless are going to have to do for themselves."
"I've known her a long time, and in general I think she's done a very positive thing in Woodlawn," says Doug Dobmeyer, executive director of the Public Welfare Coalition. "But I totally disagree with her comments in the New York Times, and I'm very angry that she said that publicly. It amounted to trashing the need for low-income housing. I think she's sending a very bad message to the public when she says that other things are more important than housing. When housing is unaffordable, I can understand why people might get into drugs or alcohol to escape those problems."
He disagrees with Sister Connie about the role of government, too. "The problem with government resources," he says, "is that good ideas have been taken over by conservatives and gutted, and they have failed. . . . We cannot solve the homeless issue without massive infusions of homeless housing. We need that as an underpinning.
"We're all dependent on the government. The members of the middle class have the biggest dependence on the government because of the mortgage deduction. To say that there should be less government involvement [in solving the problem of homelessness] is a total crock. For people to be promoting that is wrong."
Dobmeyer, who blasts the legacy of the Reagan administration, says he considers himself and his ideas progressive. "It's just good progressive politics. We have an opportunity in this country right now to redirect the money that's been wasted on the military into social needs, and the Bush administration hasn't had the guts to do it. It's not just the military; there's a lot of pure and simple government waste."
Of Sister Connie, he concludes, "I think she tries to do a good job--without Saint Martin de Porres, it would be a different story in Woodlawn. But she's trying to do a million-dollar job on a thousand dollars. The job doesn't get any smaller, and it causes frustration. It causes people to focus on what they can do on small resources.
"But our first priority has to be to get them into housing. If somebody's living out on the street, you've got to get them into housing before you can do anything else for them."
"I think Sister Connie runs one of the best programs I'm aware of," says Les Brown, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (Sister Connie is a member of the coalition's board). "She's a very, very committed, dynamic, charismatic woman who has strong opinions on every aspect of this issue. She's a very, very strong advocate on this issue."
Brown points out, however, that they don't always agree on how to "frame" the problem: "I would tend to say it's the lack of low-income housing and the lack of jobs that pay a living wage that have put people on the street. She would say it's because they have substance-abuse problems. Well, any treatment programs and any support services are fine and needed, but they won't accomplish much until we have housing and jobs. We have to keep our eyes on the prize, and the prize, in my view, is getting our communities in order."
In the New York Times article, Brown asserts, Sister Connie "got used. That was unfair--not really kosher on their part. I'm really angry that the comment was included." On the other hand, to de-emphasize the need for housing "unfortunately gives credence to the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups who would just as soon do nothing at all for the homeless."
More often that not, Brown says, he's in agreement with Sister Connie. For instance, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, like Saint Martin de Porres, does not accept any government funds. "We often find ourselves in an adversarial position with the city and state governments, and we want to be able to speak up."
Brown concludes that his disagreement with Sister Connie may be more a matter of semantics than anything else. "I may stress some things more than she does, but like her I know that unless people have a structure and feel ownership of their own lives and are held accountable for them, they're part of the problem and not part of the solution."
"I've known Sister Connie for as long as she's had the shelter--that's what, seven years? And I've known her very closely in the past couple of years, since she was named head of the [homeless] task force," says Jackie Edens, director of homeless services and programs in the city's Department of Human Services. "I admire and respect her a lot. With her energy, her commitment, and her vision, she's a difficult act to follow.
"She gets up incredibly early to do this job. She juggles the commitment with the shelter, with her ministry, and she's a mother. I get tired just talking to her. If she says she will do something, she does it. You can count on her. When she takes on a task, it will get done one way or another.
"I admire her directness. She's forthright--what you see is what you get! I think some people don't take that very well, they don't like being hit upside the head with the truth. She's just not a flowers-and-lace kind of person. She doesn't have time for bull. She doesn't work with velvet gloves.
"She's very much focused on personal responsibility, but she makes sure you have everything you need to do your job. You don't do anybody any favors by fostering dependency."
Edens admits that Sister Connie's tough-love approach can make problems for her and her department: when the nun evicts women who won't abide by the rules, the Department of Human Services has to find other shelter for them. But Edens respects the fact that "Sister Connie has to maintain order in her house. Face it--shelters are not intended to be so comfortable that people use them as an alternative to finding housing.
"Sister Connie has a real broad perspective on what the problem is--she doesn't focus on just one thing. Even if we had housing for everyone, we'd still have problems--drugs, domestic violence. She brings a sense of realism to the work. She approaches the problem from a very real, day-to-day perspective. That's what I need in city government."
"Sister Connie is about helping women, and doing it on an individual basis," says Patricia Carr, who knows from firsthand experience. Two and a half years ago, she came to Chicago from Peoria; although she was a Chicago native, she'd been gone for close to seven years and no longer had any roots here. "I didn't know anyone, I didn't know where to live--you have to be careful about neighborhoods."
Someone told her about Saint Martin de Porres, and she liked the sound of it: "It felt safe. I liked the fact that there were no men, no coming and going like you get in some apartment buildings. I called and talked to Sister Therese. I told her a little about myself and asked if I could set up an interview to be considered--and she said 'Come,' right then and there."
When she arrived, Carr got "the grand tour of the house" and signed up for chores. She stayed there for six months; a month after she left, she was hired as the school secretary and assistant to the principal at what is now Saint Gelasius, the only Catholic school in Woodlawn since a recent spate of closings and combinings by the archdiocese. "I'm going on my third year now. The position has grown as I have grown. I handle all the money for the school--all the tuition, all the fees, everything--and it's quite a responsibility. It's a fast-paced job, and it was quite a risk for the priest to take, to hire me. There are labels on shelter people. But everything fell into place, so I guess I was just meant to be here."
Carr, who is soft-spoken, articulate, and businesslike, admits she was not the typical shelter resident. Most of them, she says, were much younger than she and had several children. She also had had a good education in Roman Catholic schools and is childless (a son died in infancy), so when GED classes were held, she'd baby-sit for the mothers attending.
"It's important to stress the spiritual aspect [at Saint Martin]--it's not so much that they're bringing religion to everyone there but that they're role models. They live Christian values. And it's a home setting. If you need to talk, you don't go sign up and get told to come back tomorrow. You can walk into the kitchen and start talking like you were at your mother's house. The issues get dealt with right away, while you're peeling potatoes or chopping onions.
"One of the most important things about staying at Saint Martin de Porres is being responsible, and learning to get along with others. One thing about a shelter is that eventually everyone has to leave. You may stay there a few days; you may stay there two years. But eventually, you must leave. They try to get you ready to live on your own. They do referrals, they get information, they try to get to know an individual well enough to put them in the proper setting. They build confidence."
Invited by Connie Lynn van Oss, the "spiritually bankrupt" Patricia Carr returned to the church. She considers her work at the school, in large part, a ministry.
"Over the last couple of years, I have seen other women from the shelter in passing. Some of them are fine. Some of them are not doing that well. I have a firm belief that no one saves you but yourself. You can reach out when you're drowning, and someone may help you--but finally you have to save yourself."
Sister Connie Driscoll may have the city's premiere perspective on the situation of the homeless in Chicago. As chair of the task force, she visits other shelters in town, talks with the people who run them, and reviews their statistics, "so I have a pretty good handle on who we're seeing, and why we're seeing them," she says. "The clientele at the other shelters is absolutely no different than mine. And in fact, we share the same clientele. The women are pretty smart--they go around and grade the shelters and decide which ones they want to be in, which one has the best food, who has the best services, which ones you can sneak out of at night and go do what you want and get back in without being detected. They all have their own ways of grading." Sister Connie says with a smile that she doesn't know Saint Martin de Porres's ranking: "I've never asked."
She is the first chair of the homeless task force to come from the private sector; traditionally, that role has been taken by the Human Services commissioner. But the new commissioner felt that the task-force chair should be not only someone from the private sector but someone who didn't get any city money. Sister Connie was also the logical choice because she has been doing computerized tracking of the homeless for the city for the last five years.
The residents of Saint Martin de Porres have been statistically tracked for seven years now, giving Sister Connie an excellent base of information. By also bringing in citywide stats, "I know who's out there, I know where the empty beds are, I know who the turn-aways are. I've got pretty solid information about what goes on in the city with the homeless, and I'm probably in a better position to say how many there are than anyone is."
Well, how many are there? "I don't like to talk numbers, and the reason I don't is that there are so many variables. With the male population, when they talk homeless, they never bother to say how many are coming out of the county jail system in their overcrowding-reduction program--they can't sleep on cots at County Jail, but they can go to a church and sleep on cots, and so therefore are lined up in a shelter at night. So on certain days of the week, naturally, it's enormous. They don't distinguish that population.
"Then you've got a certain segment of the population that, no matter what you do, they will not come in off the street, period. I don't care what you offer them--food, yes. They'll walk in, take their food, and walk right back on the street. I don't care if it's 40 below zero, they are not going to come into a shelter. They want to be underneath the els, they want to be down underground on Wacker Drive. That's where they want to be! You can't get 'em in!
"Then there's mental illness, drugs and alcohol. And you've got those who are just out there and nobody knows why, who won't even tell you why. They don't act mentally ill--you don't know what's happening with them! They're out on the streets just because they want to be free.
"And you've got the women and children. You've got the youth--runaway youths, plus the youth that are on drugs. Then you've got the whole inner cadre there of prostitutes. They're all counted in the homeless population.
"Then, of course, you've got the battered women. Are battered women homeless? No--to my mind, they're not. Instead of them leaving their homes, I think they ought to kick the guy out! I think that anybody who beats on somebody else ought to be kicked out. But the woman is the one who ends up leaving, with her children, and she's the one who ends up in a shelter, and yes, she is counted as part of the homeless population, when in effect she's really not a part of the homeless population." In the city alone, out of a total of 23 shelters for women and children, almost a third--seven--are for battered women.
She disagrees with the methods used by homeless advocates to estimate the number of homeless in town. "They take what they think is an accurate count by estimating how many people they think they see on the street, and how many are actually in the shelters, and how many people are being turned away." Her perceptiveness led Sister Connie to single-handedly reduce the number of reported turn-aways--women who can't be admitted because no beds are available--by two-thirds, and she did it without the addition of a single bed. She simply created a more efficient reporting system:
"If this woman calls Tabitha House and is turned away for lack of space, she's listed as a turn-away. Then she calls my house and is turned away for lack of space, and she's listed in this house as a turn-away. Then she might get in over at [Saint] Catherine of Genoa--OK? Now she's listed twice as a turn-away."
Sister Connie developed a reporting sheet that gives the date, the woman's initials, her date of birth, and the number of her children; every shelter fills out such sheets and turns them in regularly. They also send in lists that show the clients currently residing in each shelter. "Now, I punch all of the turn-aways into my computer, and it kicks out all of those duplications. In September of 1988 [before the system was instituted], we showed 6,000 women and children turned away from shelters. And when that figure got that high, I said, "C'mon. Enough is enough. Let's find out how many of those are duplications.' In September of 1989, that figure was down to 2,120. That's an enormous difference. That's 4,000 people. We've been doing this for a year and a half, and we have a very decent handle on how many people are actually being turned away for lack of space."
There's another glitch in the system that's been fixed at Saint Martin de Porres but not everywhere else. "People call for shelter at 9 o'clock in the morning, and you may tie up ten beds. And at 4 o'clock in the afternoon they haven't showed up. So now you've tied up ten beds, and you've turned away ten people. So at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, you're sitting there saying, 'Wait a minute, I've got ten beds here! I should have taken some of those people!' Well, now most of us are getting smart. You get two hours to get here. If you're not here in two hours, we give your bed to the next person. We've solved our problem here.
"We really do have a lot of shelter beds in the city. In the summertime they go down because we close the overnight warming centers, but last winter we had 4,100 shelter beds. There's no city in the United States that has the kind of program that the city of Chicago has. It's the best shelter system in the United States."
Sister Connie attributes this primacy to having "the best advocates, a whole lot of people who are working very hard and who get no recognition for the free work they do." She adds that, in the years since the Byrne administration, there's been a "major city commitment to the homeless. . . . When Washington came in, we had I think maybe 300 shelter beds in the whole city. When he died, we had 1,500. Very few shelter beds were added during Sawyer's time, but he wasn't there long. Today, there are 4,100." Most of those beds are partially or completely funded by the government.
In its seven years, more than 6,000 women have come through the doors of Saint Martin de Porres. They have been served by a varied group of dedicated people.
These include the full-time case manager for job seeking and an outreach manager, who checks up on the women once they're out on their own to offer advice and spirit lifting. Of the current ten employees, five are ex-residents--and none is likely to get rich doing this.
"Our budget is very low [$240,000 for a 140-bed facility]," says Sister Connie."But the reason our budget is so low is that Sister Therese is the executive director, and she's unsalaried. I'm the president and CEO, and I'm unsalaried. None of the people who work for us get a whole lot of money. My director for the teenage shelter only makes $12,000 a year. It's a commitment. And if you want to make a lot of money, you obviously aren't going to come work for me."
For all that, their workers are loyal. After the founders had worked by themselves for the first two years, they hired their first staff member, who's still on the job. The maintenance man has been there for several years.
Sister Connie begins her day at 4:30 in the morning, with some time in the chapel and a shower. She works at her desk, goes to 7:15 mass at a church up the street, then works at one thing and another until 9 PM. She and Sister Therese typically work 18-hour days, and they're on call 24 hours. "I generally get ten days off a year, but that's usually taken up with speaking trips. We never go out of town on holidays or take vacations. I wouldn't know what to do with a vacation anyway."
The primary fund-raising activity for the shelter is Sister Connie's speech making. Other funding comes from individuals and private foundations. They don't take money from companies or groups that exploit the poor. They don't take money from the Roman Catholic Church, because they want to be free to speak out on issues that are important to them, like women's ordination and sexism in the church. But some issues, like abortion, they avoid. "That has absolutely nothing to do with our mission here," says Sister Connie. "This house is my primary cause, it is my primary responsibility, and I will not do anything to jeopardize it."
"By their fruits ye shall know them," said Jesus in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew; and the fruits of the program at Saint Martin de Porres House of Hope are impressive, particularly considering the rather barren ground. One of the measures of success in the shelter business is the recidivism rate. For the city as a whole, that's 38.9 percent. At Saint Martin de Porres, it's 6.5 percent.
Most people, suggests Sister Connie, are capable of learning responsibility for their own actions--if they're given the incentive. "We have lots of success stories. Many of them still live in the community; many of them are employed; they're living in their own homes and have been stabilized for years. Many of them are off welfare and doing extremely well. I don't think a day has gone by in over six years that ex-residents have not checked in with Sister Therese, just to say 'Hi, how ya doin'. It's constant--just all the time. We can't walk anywhere in the city without running into somebody that's been here."
Patricia Carr is not the only ex-resident to work at the nearby church school; there are two others. "We have ten that are now employed in this community, that live in this community, not counting the five that work for us," says Sister Connie. "We have one that works downtown at an embassy as a secretary; we have one that works at United Airlines as a ticket agent. One works at the University of Chicago. One is at the University of Illinois-Circle campus, working and going to school; another is working there full-time--they're all over. We track all this stuff. We know where everybody is. And the success stories definitely outnumber those that are repeats."
Since the methods employed at Saint Martin de Porres--the strict rules, the chores, the educational programs--seem so successful, why haven't others emulated them? "Well, I think a lot of people will start using them now, because we were just named the model family program for the state of Illinois by the Illinois Family Policy Council, whose component groups are the office of the governor, the Illinois Association of Family Service Agencies, and United Charities. We were also just named as one of eight model programs in the United States in a book called The Checklist for Success: Programs to Help the Hungry and Homeless, put out by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. When they did that, they wanted complete write-ups on how we did it and how it could be replicated nationwide.
"I frequently get calls to go to other cities to set up other shelters based on this one, which I won't do. I don't have the time, number one. Number two, I just don't think it works, because you really don't know the people you're with. To me, it's much better for them to come here, to spend some time here, and then go back and adapt the program to their own city and their own needs, to make the choices as to what would work and what wouldn't work with their own clientele."
Plans for the expansion of Saint Martin de Porres are in motion--"but not bedwise," Sister Connie cautions. "We're at capacity for beds. I'm just not gonna add any more beds, because I just don't think it's the answer. We're putting on a 4,100-square-foot addition that's going to have a children's playroom; it'll have the preschool classroom, which we now have downstairs; it's going to have three counseling rooms, a resale shop for job training, the GED [classroom], a medical clinic, a women's lounge, and additional laundry facilities. We're going to do a ground breaking the third week in August. It's going to be a big addition, but we definitely need the space. We just have to have it. We can't operate this cramped any longer."
Is the funding for this mammoth project lined up? "No, but like everything else, it'll come. It's always been our position that if God wants this place to go, then God's going to have to provide the means for it to happen. And so far, it's worked."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.