Envisioning a city where no one is homeless


CAMDEN — Most people come to Joseph’s House with a mixture of desperation and hope, looking for a warmer place to sleep than a city sidewalk and wishing for a future free of hunger or addiction.

Frederick came to die.

With terminal cancer and only one lung, he showed up at the facility’s door at 555 Atlantic Ave. in Camden, a facility that serves as a homeless shelter and connects individuals in need with social service providers.

His life expectancy a matter of weeks, Frederick had no use for a job or counseling. He didn’t even need to be reunited with family. Originally from Belgium, he was a woodworker who came to Florida on a work visa and stayed. He fell on hard times, eventually made his way to South Jersey and, through a priest, was referred to Joseph’s House.

There, with those he met at this converted juvenile halfway house — both staff and guests — he spent his last days on earth in relative comfort and contentment. In denial about his health, he received charity care at nearby Cooper University Medical Center, but at the time said he was cured and his health was good.

He slept on a Joseph’s House cot each night, and during the day — when guests have to leave — his daily routine included sharing a sandwich and cigarettes with a friend in a tent they set up nearby.

During the approximately two months he found shelter at Joseph’s House, Frederick became a beloved figure. After he died, there was an evening prayer service. More than two dozen homeless showed up and stood around the cot where he used to sleep, praying and singing “sleep in heavenly peace. …”

John Klein, a former businessman and teacher, and now executive director at Joseph’s House, talks about the shelter’s successes by citing statistics about its guests, its social service partnerships, improvements to the physical plant, and enthusiastic volunteer help. But he also talks about the success stories that cannot be listed on a spreadsheet, like the former guest who is now one of the facility’s full time staff, or the veteran they helped get into a VA facility after he had been homeless for more than eight years.

Or the memory of another guest.

“His name was Emanuel, and he had a big smile. He was the brightest light, always helpful,” Klein said.

Emanuel was always eager to help out at the shelter, always grateful and feeling that God was watching over him, Klein said. “I remember him asking me one day, ‘Do you know what Emanuel (God is with us) means?’” he recalled with a smile.

But Emanuel had mental health problems and wasn’t taking his heart medication. He died six weeks after coming to Joseph’s House. By looking through his belongings, and with some effort, the staff and the coroner were able to locate a sister.

She said that Emanuel, because of his mental health issues, had a habit of disappearing for periods of time, and she had no idea where he had been. She came to a prayer service for him at Joseph’s House and left saying, “At least I know he was warm and had friends,” Klein recalled.

There are also less uplifting stories, such as the one that helped bring Joseph’s House into existence. Years ago Klein was working at Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral Parish in East Camden with Msgr. Robert McDermott, who was then pastor. When they realized they had gone from acknowledging the homeless— whose numbers seemed to be increasing — to providing sandwiches or bus fare to a shelter to Trenton, Msgr. McDermott and Klein realized they had to respond in a different way to care for people whose needs were real and immediate.

That memory of stepping over their sleeping bodies near the church inspired Joseph’s House’s commitment to its vision of “a Camden where no neighbor sleeps outside, even for one night.”

And that makes it hard when Joseph’s House has to turn people away.

Joseph’s House provides shelter, dinner and breakfast, emergency clothing, access to shower and toilet facilities, personal hygiene products and more. But with a capacity for 80 guests, sometimes people are left outside.

As Klein talked, a man who had just met with the intake supervisor walked toward the exit. He was a middle-aged, able-bodied male, and there were too many people in greater need ahead of him. All Klein could do was hold the door and wish him good luck.

“Every day people show up,” he said. “We say, ‘we know you’re homeless and you have problems, but we can’t help. We provide referrals but it’s horrible to turn people away.”

To stay at Joseph’s House, individuals have to obey the rules — such as no drugs or alcohol, no violence — and are paired with a case manager, with the goal of finding out whatever problems led to the individual’s homelessness.

“You can’t stay long if you’re not willing to work on you,” Klein says.

More than 50 percent of the guests have mental health issues, Klein said, and about half have substance abuse issues or physical disabilities.

The facility’s operational report shows that over the past year it helped 391 individuals get medical treatment and 245 get mental health help. Thirty-seven entered treatment for addiction, and 49 found jobs. A dozen were reunited with family, and 123 found housing, including veterans’ housing.

The facility relies heavily on volunteers and donations.

“Some of the stories are heartbreaking,” said Klein, who has seen plenty of heartbreak at the shelter.

He referred again to the member of his staff who once was homeless himself. “He said, ‘If you can keep believing, keep on believing, keep on forgiving. You keep your arms open, you keep hoping.”