Encountering Mercy: Shelter the Homeless
“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In April and May, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Give Drink to the Thirsty” and “Shelter the Homeless,” respectively. These months’ profiles will highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives.
Anthony Hollin never quite recovered after falling victim to the Great Recession of 2007-09. As the worst economic downturn in U.S. history since the Great Depression, during those years unemployment jumped from 5 percent in 2007 to 9.5 percent in 2009, when the economy slowly began its upward climb.
After serving four years in the Marine Corps, Hollin worked for 26 years at a grocery store, moving up the ranks to become general manager, until the franchise closed his store in December 2006. Within a month he had found a new job at a CD manufacturing plant, but a little less than two years later, the plant closed and moved operations to another state. So he found work at a glassware company in Millville, only to have the company shrink by 75 percent within two years of his start.
After that, he couldn’t find another job.
“The recession took me down and I never bounced back,” said the now 57-year old.
Within a year, he found himself living out of his truck, his unemployment benefits expired.
Welfare in the form of cash benefits is available in New Jersey to individuals with no dependents for a maximum of five years. When individuals are two years away from the expiration of their benefits, they are referred to state-funded programs to help them get on their feet in time for the cutoff. That’s how Hollin found his way to Catholic Charities.
With two years left until the expiration of his cash benefits, leaving him totally without income, he was referred by the state to Catholic Charities’ Welfare to Work program, which helps individuals make a plan and identify resources that can help them get employed before their benefits run out.
“When you get to Catholic Charities, you’re on the way to being just totally dropped on the ground by the safety net,” Hollin said. “If Catholic Charities and people like John don’t save you, your options are to go to jail or give up.”
Hollin was not the giving up type. His case manager, John Seibel, immediately recognized something unique in him.
“Never once did he come to me with a ‘woe is me’ attitude. It was always positive thinking: ‘We can do this, we’re going to make this happen.’ That’s what makes him stand out,” Seibel said.
The two met for monthly meetings to update Hollin’s resume and create a plan for securing employment. Hollin had maintained his computer skills and held on to his laptop and cell phone when he became homeless, assets that would help him in his search.
As Seibel heard of opportunities — like job fairs, employment agencies or job openings — that could be a good fit, he would call Hollin.
“How soon can you come to the office?” he would ask.
“How soon do you want me?” Hollin would reply. He was usually at the door within minutes.
After meeting several dead ends, Seibel heard from a fellow case manager about a program called Workforce 55 Plus, which helps seniors 55 and older develop professional skills by placing them part-time with non-profit agencies while paying them a minimum wage salary. Seibel thought Hollin would be a perfect fit.
During his interview with 55 Plus, Gerald Davis, an employment resource specialist overseeing three southern New Jersey counties for the program, also recognized something special in Hollin.
Not only was Hollin accepted into the program, he was placed with Workforce 55 Plus itself as his host agency, becoming Davis’ staff assistant for the program’s Gloucester County office. As a full participant in the program, he attends training sessions with other participants, but also handles all paperwork for the program’s other participants in Gloucester County, helps manage and acquire relationships with host agencies, and serves as a liaison for Davis with other program participants.
“It’s intrinsically rewarding,” Hollin said. “The smile on people’s faces when you say, ‘You’ve been accepted to the program and I have the perfect host agency for you’ — that part feels really good.”
As a veteran, Hollin is eligible for housing assistance vouchers through the VA, but he needed to prove he had a steady source of income before he could receive them. Seibel helped connect him with Catholic Charities’ Veteran Services program, which helped smooth the way for Hollin to receive his voucher. As soon as his first pay stub from Workforce 55 Plus came in, he was able to get his voucher approved and apply to apartments.
He recently moved into an apartment for the first time in three and a half years. Seibel arranged for him to receive some of his furniture through Catholic Charities’ furniture warehouse, which provides furniture free of charge to formerly homeless veterans.
At the time of the interview, Hollin was just preparing to move in.
“I’m most looking forward to being warm,” he said.
Hollin is now in the process of being hired full-time by Workforce 55 Plus, transitioning out of its program and into the role of full-time staff person.
“It comes down to I was placed between two great people who helped me, and I followed instructions to the best of my ability,” Hollin said. “I’m just trying to do my best.”
“It’s people like him that make it all worth it,” Seibel said.
The mercy of sheltering the homeless
In February 1988, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released the document “What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother? The Church And The Housing Problem” to lay out the church’s position on just housing distribution. It was released in honor of the UN’s International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987. The document argues that decent housing is a universal human right and calls for a reexamination of the structural causes of the “scandal” of homelessness around the world.
“For each Christian and for the Church, as the People of God, the stark reality of homeless persons and families is at one and the same time an appeal to conscience and an exigency to do something to remedy the situation.
“In each person or family lacking a basic good, and above all housing, the Christian must recognize Christ himself, as the well-known words of Matthew’s Gospel state: ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me’ (Mt 25, 42ff). In the last two categories of persons, is truly reflected, to a certain degree, the situation of the homeless, and it is necessary to recognize the Lord himself in them.”