Homeless agony: Where will I sleep tonight? Is it safe? Will I freeze? And where’s Guido?

by Greg Eckerle


A tarp strung up in the trees on the banks of the Ohio River is a telltale sign that this location has become somebody’s “home.”

The daily entries on the Ferdinand Benedictines’ monastery prayer board are sometimes, well, distressing. But the sisters don’t flinch. They religiously read them, and then earnestly pray for those in need. Day after day, without fail.

But one particular entry last September was more haunting, and more aggravating, than most.

“Guido, a homeless man in Louisville, was beaten up by kids on Thursday. His wheelchair was thrown into the river.”

Honestly, who can make any sense out of anyone doing that to someone so defenseless?

Even more exasperating is that, a short time later, Guido was in line to receive permanent housing. Except homeless outreach workers couldn’t find him to deliver the happy news. Sadly, the entire episode is not that uncommon.

Sister Mary Frances Schafer, as director of community coordination at the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, is doing all she can to prevent such an atrocity from happening again. She helps secure grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to attack the homeless problem in the Louisville area, to get people off the streets at night and into housing. Just before her arrival in 2006, the local annual HUD funding had been cut from $5 million to $2 million. Under her leadership, the yearly grants have grown steadily ever since, even through the last recession, to nearly $9 million a year.

But even Sister Mary Frances doesn’t know what became of Guido. And that’s one of the reasons why she is so dedicated to the cause.
“It’s amazing how many homeless we hear of getting beat up,” she says, “People do it just for fun, or just because they think homeless are the low life, and they don’t think there’s any reason to respect them. They don’t think they deserve any help. Even worse, some don’t see them as human beings.”

Jimbo (left) is one of thousands who have been rescued from sleeping on Louisville’s streets. Sister Mary Frances Schafer holds the “Frances” sign that Jimbo drew for her. The sign is normally taped to her office door.

Tears well up in her eyes. Such treatment, such an attitude, such insensitivity, couldn’t be further from her Benedictine belief of greeting everyone as if they are Christ. And never, ever, judging them.

She recalled delivering furniture donated by her Ferdinand monastery to a man recently placed in housing. He had been beat up. Through emergency care, his jaw had been wired shut, but he had no idea how it was going to be unwired. That’s not an emergency procedure, and he had no healthcare coverage.

But, thankfully, there are plenty of success stories, too, that Sister Mary Frances and her team are right in the middle of. Like Jimbo. He had been living on the streets for years, mostly sleeping behind buildings, when he suffered severe frostbite over a year ago. He lost 8 toes, but later landed permanent housing through the Coalition for the Homeless. He has become friends with Sister Mary Frances, visits her office about once a week, waters the plants, and even leaves treats for the staff. Such life turnarounds reaffirm for Sister Mary Frances why she doggedly pushes ahead in a job that often burns people out. “Jimbo surely would have died on the streets if he had not been helped,” she says.

Sister Mary Frances skillfully meshes over 40 area homeless services to best use federal funding. She has the knack of convincing some project leaders that the funds they want could better serve Louisville by being used elsewhere. She thrives at negotiating amongst the various wish lists to head off turf wars and prepare a grant proposal that HUD will fully fund. It’s a challenge to persuade HUD to continually send more money to Louisville every year, but she’s gotten it done.

“We have not lost a dollar of funding since 2006,” she says. “That’s hugely important to me. I’m proud of that. We’ve had to move some money around to make the HUD applications stronger, and that had to be agreed to by a lot of people. So it’s not just me.”

But Sister Mary Frances was the one getting widely varied agencies to understand what the consequences of their decision would be, and getting everyone to reach a consensus on what is best for all. She calls it “reading the tea leaves” of what HUD is looking for in an application, and she is good at it.

Sister Mary Frances Schafer emphasizes a point about federal HUD funding for transitional housing for the homeless at a meeting of 18 providers in Louisville.

The result? Louisville agencies have been receiving almost double the estimated distribution of federal funds for homeless efforts as compared to other cities of Louisville’s size. In 2013, providers placed 1,521 people in permanent housing. Still, the last annual census of homeless numbered about 8,000. That was down from 11,000 in 2010, but there are always new people being thrown into the predicament.

Donna Trabue of the Volunteers of America of Kentucky is one who has reduced money she wanted to request for a project, after hearing Sister Mary Frances’ rationale, and steered it to another need instead.

“Sister Mary Frances is filled with compassion for homeless people, and shows them respect, dignity and care,” said Donna. “She’s also very gifted with a big picture perspective. She thinks critically and analytically about how the homeless delivery system works. She brings together various agencies to talk about how to improve. She has the gift of discernment, and is a great voice for people who don’t have much of a voice in our community. She has a leadership style that people want to follow, because they sense she knows what she’s talking about. And she has the best interests of the community and the homeless, at heart.

“She creates a safe space for honest discussion. She invites us to look at our system through different lenses, to see how maybe some homeless are falling through the cracks, and if some of us are willing to give up some things, we can more effectively serve our clients and get them into housing.

“I sense there’s a spiritual basis that underlies her compassion. It’s difficult for people to stay in this work as long as she has, but I sense her faith is a good deal of her motivation.”

Two recent milestone achievements were Louisville’s participation in the “Rx: Housing” nationwide program to place 100,000 homeless into homes, and the Coalition establishing a Single Point of Entry service.

Through the three-year 100,000 Homeless project, new funding enabled about 140 of the most vulnerable people, those most likely to die on the streets, to be moved into housing. About 30 people a year die outside in Louisville, from reasons ranging from freezing to death, to heart attacks, to cancer, to gangrene, to even being murdered.

Another big success in Sister Mary Frances’ eyes was opening the Single Point of Entry, a service one can call about nightly bed availability in Louisville’s three homeless shelters. The phone lines are usually jammed by 10:00 every morning. But it sure beats the prior process of physically going to each shelter and waiting in line in the hopes of securing a place to sleep that night.

Yet some still get turned away. There simply aren’t enough beds. So the homeless may go back to their car, which they have been sleeping in regularly anyway. Many go forlornly traipsing off to the woods, or a secluded alley, a junkyard, a park bench, or underneath an overpass. They fight the elements, and the fear of the unknown that comes with every long, dark night. This daily plight of hundreds in Louisville eats at Sister Mary Frances’ mind, heart, and soul.

She recalls a homeless man who came to the Single Point of Entry office covered with scabies. All he wanted was a shower. He had nowhere to turn. He admitted stealing anti-itching medication. After contacting a few places, the office finally got him some help. “I cried dealing with this guy,” she says. “What do you do for somebody who is literally just miserable?”

As a Benedictine, Sister Mary Frances obviously is a prayerful person. But the homeless dilemma drives it deeper. “Knowing some don’t have shelter every night, that’s a daily thing of prayer for me,” she says. “It changes me. It makes me work to accept these people as they are. So prayer for me is every minute.”

She knows, unfortunately, that not everybody easily accepts the homeless. Well, they think, they are drunks. Drug addicts. Mentally ill. Too lazy to get a job. It’s their own fault. I pulled myself up, why can’t they?

“We all make bad decisions,” says Sister Mary Frances, “but most of us have others who can help us out. Not everybody has that.”

She knows she has the support of her Benedictine community. Religious community life has also been a great training ground for her learning how to meld a wide variety of opinions and ideas into one common goal. She’s learned how to listen, how to respond, and how to work with others for the greater good. “I think that’s part of the gift I bring to the Louisville homeless effort, because the process is similar. Sure, there are turf wars, because you’re talking about who gets money for projects they are passionate about. It’s sometimes delicate reaching a consensus. Here, I call it ‘righting the money,’ putting it where it will do the most good for all, not just for a select few agencies. We’ve been successful in getting the message across that each agency should also be concerned about the other agencies’ success, because that’s going to affect the money we all get.”

Just before Christmas, Sister Mary Frances was one of 200 volunteers who stood on Louisville street corners for two hours holding signs to draw awareness to the suffering of the homeless. Her sign said, “I have a warm place to sleep. I am here for someone who doesn’t.” That same day she had commiserated with a mother of six children who had no place to stay that night. And it was going to be a brutally cold night. “I knew, when I was freezing outside holding my sign for two hours, that it was nothing compared to what that family was going to have to endure,” she says. So she hurt, thinking of all those without life’s necessities right there in Louisville.

It’s why she keeps up the relentless drive for more grant money to get more people off the streets. And why it’s so gratifying when the team’s effort moves somebody out of danger and into housing. Somebody like Gary Paige, who had been living on the streets for eight long years until finally getting an apartment last spring through the “Rx: Housing” program.

Gary Paige, homeless for eight years, now lives in an apartment thanks to the efforts of Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless.

Upon hearing the good news, Gary, 59, said, “My heart skipped a beat. I’m loving every bit of it. It’s a lovely place.

“I had been staying way back in the woods, where nobody can see me. And sometimes I went to the junkyard, when it’s raining, to sleep in one of them cars, or when it’s real cold.”

Gary, whose backpack had been stolen once, liked to avoid trouble by sleeping alone. He would find secluded places during the day where he could sleep that night, taking care that no one saw him. He routinely hid his sleeping bag high in a tree, where it was less likely to be spotted.

“Because there’s so many homeless out there, you can’t really find a good spot,” he said. “When you finally think you found one, the next thing you know you hear somebody coming and you say, oh, Lord, I just can’t win for losing. I don’t trust people out there at nighttime, so I’d go from place to place.”

On dangerously cold nights, when his thermal socks and gloves weren’t enough, Gary would relent and stay in a homeless shelter. But not for long. Too many people. Too noisy. And too concerned about his backpack’s security. And while Gary never got beat up, he knows of several homeless who did.

“One of my closest friends got killed out there. First, he got beat up. Some guys robbed him and knocked out one of his eyes. Then he went down to the railroad tracks. They robbed him and beat him to death, with some type of metal pole. They never did catch who did it.
“At least now I have a roof over my head. I ain’t going to be out here in the cold, wondering which way to go next.”