Thankfulness in the midst of homelessness

The guests, volunteers and staff at the St. John shelter have at least one thing in common

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By Tom Holmes

Back on Friday the 13th, the second Friday in November, a 33-year-old man named Chris talked about being thankful after finishing his dinner at the Housing Forward (formerly PADS) emergency homeless shelter at St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park. He is a single parent raising two boys and a girl — age 6, 5, and 4 — with his only income coming from a part-time job.

"Right now life is challenging," he said. "I have my ups and downs. Some days are better than others, trying to get out of this situation and find home, trying to get better things for my kids."

In the midst of a depressing situation, however, Chris found many reasons to be thankful. 

"It's been rough, but I'm in good hands with a good organization. The people in Housing Forward are wonderful. They're helping me and my children get back on our feet. I'm so grateful that God put the right people in my life at this time of need. Without them I don't know where I'd be right now."

The help he has received from the Housing Forward staff and volunteers seems to have given Chris the ability to look to the future with hope. 

"I'm working part-time right now," he said, "but with the holidays coming up, I am confident I will get some full-time work. I try to keep my head high and keep moving forward because I know better things are coming along for us."

After finding a mattress on the gym floor, a guest named Tim said, "I'm thankful for this church, the support of Housing Forward and the whole PADS organization because otherwise I'd be sleeping in Dunkin Donuts. [Housing Forward] helped me get my Link Card, a simple thing to others, but for me it's huge. I have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and afib [Atrial fibrillation]. I got a bag full of medication by my mattress. Thank God I have this organization.

Many of the "guests" at the shelter thanked the people from St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church who were serving a dinner that included salad, chicken, spaghetti, fried rice and dessert. But the members of the Thai church also expressed gratitude for being able to serve the homeless.

"You go in there thinking you are giving to them," said Peter Tessalee, "and in turn they give back to us. Talking and interacting with the people there, I get to hear their stories, and I can see that they feel thankful. Usually I leave here with a sense of needing to do more."

"They give back to us," added Saitong Uramporn. "They make us happy. They can make us smile, too, when we tease each other."

Monta Limthongviratn of the cooking team said, "I think about the peace of the Lord when I serve these people. I think about so many blessings that God has given me. I have food. I have a home to live in, but those people don't have what I have, so this is good meaning, good serving."

Jomlong Martin, a Thai woman with a reputation for making great spaghetti, said, "It makes me feel wonderful because I can be here to feed someone who really needs it."

Vipavee Sutheerawut, who is an intern at the Thai church and has only been in the U.S. a few months, said, "At first I thought the homeless people would be dangerous, but they are not. I saw them smiling and happy while they were eating. We are all human beings who live in the world together, so we need to help each other, give love and give others a hand."

Piyamas Mercurio also talked about being thankful for the opportunity to show God's love and compassion, while her husband David mused, "How easily it could have been me had life gone another way."

Chiraphon Chummongkhon, who is away from home in Thailand for a few years studying psychology, experienced her time serving in the shelter from the perspective of a sojourner in a foreign land. "When I go to feed the homeless, I feel like I am also homeless myself. I can benefit them and they thank me. I say yeah we can both share the feeling, so it's great to have that opportunity to do that little thing that I do."

The people who work for Housing Forward acknowledged that their perspective on life is affected greatly by working with the homeless. Hannah Hartman, an outreach worker, said, "There are times when I get off work, and I go home and I just want to hug my kids, especially when I hear clients talk about their children whom they sometimes haven't seen for 10 years."

Chelsea Dare, a case manager for permanent supportive housing with Housing Forward, said, "My job is a little more hopeful because I'm working with people who are transitioning from homelessness into their own home. I work with people who have so little and they are appreciative of what they have. I've learned to appreciate being able to cook. I have a stove with a pot and a plate and a refrigerator, the good simple things you don't have when you don't have a home."

Tiffani Gardner works in Housing Forward's homeless prevention department. 

"Doing that every day," she said, "makes me realize there's such a thin line between being housed and being homeless. This summer I was teaching life skills classes. I listened to clients' stories, but I was able to open up and share some of my own stories, some things I've gone through. And my opening up allowed them to do the same. A lot of times they just want companionship, someone to talk to who will listen. Sometimes it's not even about can you give me food or loose change, just someone to take the time to sit down with me and talk with me."

Romiesha Tucker, the employment readiness coordinator, said, "My work is not all sad. I'm extremely happy when one of the homeless clients get a job and other things begin to fall into place. They did most of the work, but I was a part of it."

 "I'm grateful that we are able to build relationships with clients," said Armando Smith, director of operations and client services. "Seeing the difference we make in clients' lives is rewarding. Because we do a good job, they trust us."

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