The apartment is nothing fancy, but it’s home.
Toys are tucked away in a corner of the living room in the clean and tidy three-bedroom unit. The furniture isn’t new. No fancy decorations on the wall or shelves. Outside, three well-worn bikes with crumbling seats are parked under the stairway.
A year ago, at nine months pregnant, Melissa Gaines and her four children faced homelessness. When she learned about the unplanned pregnancy, Gaines and her husband were having marital difficulties, and a separation ensued. Then, she couldn’t pay rent on her apartment and had to find somewhere else to stay, settling on a low-cost motel room for the time being.
That’s when she reached out to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and came in contact with Ken Kapeller of the St. Charles Borromeo Parish Conference. They helped her with her motel costs for a week or so.
“They said to me, ‘How can we help you get out of your situation?’” Gaines said, noting that Kapeller and other volunteers were concerned with her living on the streets with a newborn.
Complicating matters were a liability from a court judgment and bad credit history. With the help of a number of sources within the Society, the judgment was paid off. Getting into an apartment still was difficult, but with the Society’s help, it worked. The volunteers helped her with a job search, and she found work for an Affordable Care Act processing facility in Wentzville.
Gaines was back on her feet, thanks to the job and income from her eldest daughter’s retail job, and she no longer needed help from the Society. But the Wentzville employer announced the facility was closing; on May 25 Gaines was unemployed again.
Since then, she been searching for a comparable job, spending time at a career center and applying at businesses. She’d like to find work in St. Charles or the Maryland Heights area, somewhere not too far from home. The Society paid for a month’s rent, and she’s scrambling to pay other bills, including a car payment and insurance.
“I’ve been following leads and trying to get work as soon as possible,” Gaines said. “I’m hoping to find something soon because I don’t want to be in that situation of homelessness.”
She didn’t contact the Society for help this time, but by coincidence Kapeller called to check in after her name came up in a meeting.
“They keep me in prayer,” Gaines said. “God has always been providing with their support. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is the most amazing place. They show compassion, and they love people. When I get money, I will donate back to the Society because they’ve helped me and my family so much.”
Kapeller met with Gaines June 12 and urged her to remain positive about her job search. “I’ll keep praying for you and your family,” he said. “Something will come up.”
She told him her children needed summer clothes, and she found some at a thrift store. “I believe God will provide,” she said.
Kapeller retired in 1999, and has volunteered with the Society for about 16 years after a parishioner urged him and his wife to get involved. “Mostly I like being able to get people over the hump,” Kapeller said. He primarily deals with people who are homeless. Sometimes, after an initial outreach, they lose touch and he wonders how they’ve survived. Other times there’s successes.
The Bridges Fund of the Society’s St. Louis Archdiocesan Council helps address emergency cases that are greater than a conference’s capabilities. Qualifying cases include needs based on temporary employment, a homeowner with costly emergency repairs or someone who has been evicted but has permanent housing lined up. The fund is one of the sources tapped to help Gaines.
Also helpful has been a pool of funds donated by parish conferences in the region, Kapeller said, an effort that began about 2014 after a surge in need to help homeless people and families. But there still aren’t enough funds to meet all the needs, he said.
Joyce Cain, another volunteer with the Society’s conference at St. Charles Borromeo Parish, said: “I have learned so much from people who have very little but appreciate what they have. And they probably have a stronger belief in God than I might have had before I began volunteering with St. Vincent de Paul.”
She learned how wrong it is to be judgmental. “Some people just make bad choices,” Cain said, “but other people are where they are through no fault of their own, and they are trying the best they can. You truly don’t know what the lives of people are like until you walk a little bit in their shoes.”
When a family they help turns their life around — after the Society pays down a mortgage or secures reliable transportation for them, for example — “you have no idea how satisfying that is,” Cain said.