Gateway Shelter for Women and Families on W. Apple St is ready to help
24-hours a day. 

By Tim Walker | Photos by Michael Morris

Homelessness: it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. One day you’re working and paying your bills on time, trying to save a little money for a rainy day. The next, due to accident, illness, or emergency, your entire world has changed and in the blink of an eye you have nowhere to go, the wolf is at the door, and the bank can’t seem to remember your name.

It’s often said that the average aAmerican family is only one or two missed paychecks away from being out on the street, and statistics seem to support that frightening assertion. A mere 39 percent of Americans say they have enough money in the bank to cover a $1,000 emergency room visit or unexpected car repair, according to data released last year by Bankrate, a personal finance website. Paying for surprise major expenses was the number one use for savings cited by the public, yet over 44 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t be able to cover even a $400 emergency expense, or would be forced to rely on borrowing or selling something in order to do so, according to a separate 2017 survey of more than 6000 adults released by the U.S.
Federal Reserve.

Those unexpected hardships which can strike any of us are almost certainly related to the increasingly large number of homeless citizens in this country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which released its annual “Point in Time” count in January of this year, reported over 554,000 homeless people across our nation. That figure is up nearly 1 percent from 2016, and of that total, 193,000 people had no access at all to nightly shelter, but instead were sleeping in vehicles, tents, on the street, and in other places generally considered to be uninhabitable. That unsheltered figure is up by more than 9 percent compared to two years ago. To make matters worse, more than 1.3 million of U.S. children experience homelessness at some point each year, according to national statistics, a situation which can easily disrupt a child’s educational progress, self-esteem, and relationships with peers.

There but for the grace of God, goes each of us. And that is why, in this day and age, the good work being done by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, both in Dayton and all over the world, is so very vital.

“We are more than just a shelter,” says Adam Wik, local Marketing Communications Manager for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has been working to provide help to the needy worldwide for over 184 years. “We offer comprehensive support, serving the community personally in face-to-face relationships, to systematically reduce the poverty and homelessness risk factors in the Dayton community. We want those who need help to know that we will meet them where they are, and for our community supporters to realize that their support is more than putting a Band-Aid on the problem. By joining our mission, the community helps us to provide life-changing hope to more than 100,000 lives every year.”

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international volunteer organization that was founded in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam, a French lawyer, to help impoverished people living in the slums of Paris. As part of the Catholic Church, the organization is composed of individuals who make it their mission to grow spiritually by helping their neighbors, and it is that personal sense of involvement that makes the work of the society so unique. The U.S. headquarters is located in St. Louis, and membership in the United States in 2015 exceeded 97,000 people in over 4,400 communities. Expenditures to people in poverty exceed $473 million annually, with much of the revenue being raised through a large network of thrift stores, and that money goes to fund programs which include visits to homes, prisons, and hospitals, housing assistance, disaster relief, job training and placement, food pantries, dining halls, clothing, transportation and utility costs, care for the elderly, and medicine.

While locally the Society of St. Vincent de Paul maintains two emergency homeless shelters—the Gateway Shelter for Women and Families at 120 West Apple Street, and the Gateway Shelter for Men at 1921 South Gettysburg Avenue—it is the variety, the number, and the success of the many social programs they operate which are the real success story. These programs serve to help needy people get back on their feet, find work, and rebuild their lives.

“We had no place else to go, so we came here,” says Terri Huffman, when speaking with the Dayton City Paper recently at the shelter. Huffman is a Dayton resident who was shocked to find herself and her nine-year-old son suddenly homeless in 2009. “My husband Henry, who was my fiancé at the time, worked for our landlord, and part of his pay was that we got an apartment to stay in. He was a property manager and did a lot of the maintenance work. Our landlord, Mike, was buying up houses, and he’d go in and fix them up and rent them out, and Henry was doing 90 percent of that work
for him, too.”

“Mike got overextended on his properties,” she continues, “And the bank started foreclosing on them, so he couldn’t afford to pay my husband, or keep him on payroll. Since the apartment was part of his pay, we got evicted. We had no place else to go, so me and my son ended up here. He was only nine years old at the time.”

Terri Huffman had no job skills and with nowhere to go and no one to turn to, she, her fiancé, and her son were forced to seek refuge in the two local shelters operated by St. Vincent de Paul. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said, the stress from the memory evident on her face. “For me, it was admitting to myself, and to him, and to the whole world, that as a mom I was a failure. Because I could not provide a roof over his head, someplace warm for him to sleep. It was November when we got here. It was just the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. Yet, on the other hand, it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Without St. Vincent’s…”

Terri Huffman’s eyes fill with tears as she remembers the frustration of those difficult months. But then she smiles, and the pride she now feels as she relates her story’s happy ending is obvious.

“When we left the shelter, we were put into their transitional housing program,” she said. “The rules were different then—I was staying at one shelter with my son, but my husband was at the shelter on Gettysburg.” Her husband is now a case manager for St. Vincent de Paul Supportive Services For Veteran Families Program. “Henry had started taking classes at Sinclair while he was staying at the shelter. He started the classes in 2010, and in May of last year he earned his third degree. He now has two associate’s degrees from Sinclair, one in mental health technology, and one in drug and alcohol counseling. He also now has a Bachelor’s in social work, and he is talking to Wright State about going for his masters degree.”

Terri herself is also working—for the St. Vincent Society at the Apple Street shelter, and she’s been employed there since December 2011. Her son will be 18 years old in June, and the family now owns a home in Dayton, which they purchased a year and a half ago. She is quick to thank and give credit to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the help they provided when the family needed it.

“Where we are today, we owe it all to them,” she says.

“One of the things that really makes us stand out against other shelters,” continues Communications Manager Adam Wik, “Is that we’re really all about directly impacting the community from a systemic approach. In the past we’ve had a lot of events designed to engage the community, but we’ve decided to start even more focusing on our core mission. So what we’ve done is, we’ve stricken our events so we can give even more directly to our clients. We’re at 94 cents on the dollar right now, and we’re very proud of that. Goodwill and the Salvation Army do wonderful work as well, but we are the organization most directly serving Dayton, and we’re able to do that very efficiently.”

When asked how many Dayton residents St. Vincent helps with shelter on a nightly basis, Wik says, “Thankfully just after the holidays here things started to relax—we average about 400 people each night between the two shelters, and about 40 children, unfortunately. Right now, we’re at about 35 children and just under 400 adults, which is great. Where we saw the biggest surge was actually in the fall; back in November and the first part of December we were at over 120 children each night. And that lasted
for weeks.”

Those numbers, while shocking, may not be a surprise when seen in the light of the nation’s estimated homeless population. But for a medium-sized city in Ohio, in the United States in 2018, to have over 120 children going to sleep without homes is
simply unacceptable.

Serving that added influx of people in the fall of 2017, of course, put added pressure on the shelter’s volunteers and resources. “The biggest strain we always have at that time of year is blankets, winter coats, and personal items,” says Wik. “You know, it’s funny. We don’t advertise any push for Christmas toys or anything like that. And the reason why is that, quite frankly, we get an outpouring of support from the community during the holidays which is wonderful. But these are kids that don’t have the basic comforts that you and I take for granted. And while they definitely enjoy a G.I. Joe or a Barbie, honestly…sometimes a blanket means a lot more.”

Without community support in the form of monetary donations, donations of items, and the time of volunteers who work countless hours at the shelters, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul would be unable to fulfill its mission. When asked what donations the Society could use from local residents at the moment, Wik replies, “Right now our biggest needs are new underwear—men’s, women’s and children’s—and new or gently used blankets and towels. Another reminder that I always try to mention, and we do get this question a lot, is when people ask if what we can use more—donations of items, or monetary donations. One thing I like to mention to people is this: we are able to provide three meals per day, to the residents of both Dayton shelters, for only $150 per day. So every donation of $150 is feeding over 400 people on any given day.”

Seeing the Women and Family shelter itself, and speaking to the residents, workers, and volunteers behind the scenes, you find yourself grateful that our area has resources such as these, and organizations like St. Vincent de Paul, which can not only help to shelter a person who has found themselves in a tight spot, but can provide them with the means to help themselves and move toward a better life.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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