Mark had been an in-house caregiver for an elderly neighbor and dementia patient, referred to as Susan, for over three years when her family decided to move her to an assisted living home.
“She was like a second mom to me. I lived next door to her for nine years and then I took care of her for 37 months,” said Mark, who asked that his full name not be used.
Shortly before the move, a Camden County case worker visited to inspect the house.
“She saw the depth of Susan’s dementia and she said, ‘How have you done this by yourself?’” Mark said.
He told the representative that he had lapsed into a drinking habit to get through the long, difficult days. The representative watched as Mark made lunch and helped Susan as she became delusional or distracted.
“The case worker said to me with tears in her eyes, ‘Mark, drinking or not, Susan would be better here with you,’” Mark said. “She was my heart. I miss her every day.”
Susan moved to the assisted living home in January. As her health declined, Mark’s life, too, began to spiral downward. His drinking escalated and soon he was homeless.
In August he became a guest at Joseph’s House, a drop-in center for the homeless in Camden whose mission goes beyond simply providing warmth and shelter.
“Our idea is, you’re welcome; it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s warm, but it’s not the end of the road,” said John Klein, executive director and co-founder.
The shelter partners with social service providers who are invited to come to the center to connect with guests. Representatives are present in the evenings and mornings to meet with guests during waking hours of the seven day a week “Overnight Café’s” 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. operational hours.
The shelter also offers a day services program on weekdays from 9 to 11 a.m. where guests can connect onsite to the Camden County Board of Social Services as well as to medical, legal, addictions, mental health, and veterans services.
Klein’s nine-person full-time staff’s primary role is “ministry of presence” that aims to build relationships with the shelter’s overnight guests in order to facilitate making those connections to services.
“It’s trying to break down this idea that I’m the service provider and you’re the service recipient and I’m going top down and giving you something,” Klein said. “It has more to do with people sitting, talking, sharing a cup of coffee, sharing a cup of soup and little by little discovering that common ground, that human spirit of both of us and that spark of the divine in both of us.”
Since opening four years ago, the center has gradually evolved into its dual role. At its start in 2010 as a ministry of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral Parish in East Camden, the café was a six-month operation during the cold winter months. In its first year, it was a typical shelter, offering food, showers, warmth and hospitality while the directors got to know the needs of the population being served.
Over the next two years, the services component of Joseph’s House ministry began to develop. In August, 2013, the ministry bought a new building on Atlantic Avenue and began renovations thanks largely to grants from TD Bank and Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Foundation.
The new shelter opened its doors on Jan. 21, just in time for the harsh and long winter, becoming a year-round homeless center for the first time.
Since January, the shelter has served more than 1,000 overnight guests. Over 50 percent of guests stay for five nights or less. In addition to connecting guests with service providers, the shelter provides showers, laundry services and two meals.
The waiting list is long for the 75-person capacity shelter. Mark said he slept nearby while he waited for a space to become available.
In 2013 the shelter estimated that 20 percent of its guests were veterans, 40 percent had a mental illness diagnosis, 36 percent struggled with substance abuse, and 33 percent suffered from both mental illness and substance abuse.
“That vision that you had of yourself, wherever that got sidetracked, wherever you lost that, we’re here to try to help you reconnect with that healthier you, that vision of you that uses your gifts and talents the way that you’d like to and the way that God intended you to,” Klein said. “If we can help rekindle that sense of hope, that’s what we’re about.”
Since arriving in August, Mark has begun to stabilize his life. He spends his nights as a guest at the Overnight Café. By day he attends meetings with Wiley Christian Behavioral Management Services and works with a case manager through Catholic Charities. He wants to go back to work as soon as he can.
“I feel 100 percent better. I’ve been eating, sleeping good. Getting up, doing something steady. I’ve got the drinking pretty much in check now. Everything is consistent here. It’s a foundation to getting back on track,” he said.
He has set a personal goal of leaving the shelter within a month. In the meantime, he works as a volunteer with Joseph’s House, arriving early in the evenings and leaving late in the mornings to help set up and clean up, assisting the staff in any way he can.
“You’ve got to give back a little bit. This is not an entitlement. This is a blessing,” he said. “This isn’t home; this is a way station.”
As winter nears, Joseph’s House is approaching its time of greatest need. The shelter encourages donations of items like coffee, bottled water, laundry detergent and dryer sheets and is always in need of monetary donations. Volunteers are also needed to help serve meals. A Wish List of needed items and details on volunteering and donating are available at www.josephshouseofcamden.org or by calling John Klein at 856-246-1087.