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Mary O’Connell and Katy Beth Doman talked with a homeless man Downtown as a group of men huddled under blankets over the heat exhaust vent to keep warm on Jan. 30. The SLU students were part of St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless, an outreach to bring homeless people to shelter at the university.
Mary O’Connell and Katy Beth Doman talked with a homeless man Downtown as a group of men huddled under blankets over the heat exhaust vent to keep warm on Jan. 30. The SLU students were part of St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless, an outreach to bring homeless people to shelter at the university.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

‘You are a neighbor whether or not you have a house’

SLU students organize temporary shelter, focus on relationships, dignity

One day when temperatures wandered just a few degrees each side of zero, Chuck Hanks mostly was outside.

Homeless for three months, he passed time by walking, he said. But by early evening, Hanks was safely inside the warmth of the Manresa Retreat Center of Saint Louis University.

Rachel Mlsna and a team of volunteers cooked chili and chicken fried rice to feed homeless people gathered at Saint Louis University’s emergency winter shelter at the Manresa Center on Jan. 30. Students with St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless prepare dinners each week for homeless people living on the streets near their campus as a way to converse with these neighbors.
Student organizations, including the St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless, organized and staffed the temporary shelter. Students from the Campus Ministry and Catholic Studies Program were among the volunteers. Tim Huffman, SLU communication department assistant professor and the faculty advisor for Labre, said that “we have a delightful, activist student community that’s really thoughtful about all kinds of folks in our neighborhood.”

Devonn Thomas, an energetic SLU junior, greeted Hanks with a big smile and even bigger bright eyes. She asked for background information, then accompanied him to his room on the third floor, where she wrote his name on masking tape and affixed it next to the room number. In a friendly yet no-nonsense manner she recited a few rules — no drugs, violence or mean words — and told him she’d also provide a bag of toiletries. Breakfast would be served before the temporary overnight shelter would close at 9 a.m., Thomas added.

“I feel good,” Hanks said before sitting with students and other guests playing a card game in a dining room area.

Access to shelter

When sub-zero temperatures were forecast in St. Louis, Kent Porterfield, SLU’s vice president for student development, sent an email to the SLU community suggesting mittens and warm clothing to avoid frostbite. Thomas contacted Porterfield and Jonathan Smith, vice president for diversity and community engagement, and raised the issue of students and others who didn’t have access to such clothing or a warm place to sleep. Jesuit Father Chris Collins of SLU also was consulted.

The end result was the use of Il Monastero, a meeting and event space, the first night and Manresa the next. Labre student members agreed to staff the temporary shelter along with other volunteers and coordination was made with the St. Louis Winter Outreach program — which provides blankets, shelter and transportation to emergency shelters during severe winter weather conditions — and police, who were helping to get people to shelters. Last year, 949 people were counted as homeless in the city of St. Louis during the annual Point in Time count required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Exposure to cold can cause frostbite or hypothermia and can become life threatening. A wind chill of -20 degrees with light winds will cause frostbite in just 30 minutes. Hypothermia, a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95 degrees, can be deadly.

“I’m very edified but not surprised that the impulse to care for people who are homeless and others” came from students, Father Collins said.


Huffman noted that Labre goes into the streets once a week with meals cooked by students in order to create relationships with people who are homeless. “The basic premise is you are a neighbor whether or not you have a house, and we should know our neighbors,” he said.

Devonn Thomas, a junior at Saint Louis University, explained operations and protocol to Chuck Hanks who was staying the night at an emergency shelter at the university on Jan. 29. As temperatures dropped to near zero, students from SLU’s St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless and other campus organizations invited homeless people off the street to stay in some of the university’s buildings.
Labre visits with 40 or more people a week, some of whom they’ve known for years, said Huffman, whose research, activism and teaching is connected to homelessness. “It was all very sudden and in response to the apocalyptic weather. But, because we’ve been doing this a long time, when we got the OK from the university, we knew what to do,” Huffman said.

Some conversations with the SLU administration had been underway earlier about the need, Huffman said. He and others in Labre would like to see SLU continue to operate a shelter in severe cold weather. Three Catholic parishes in the archdiocese, including St. Francis Xavier (College Church) on the SLU campus, are part of Winter Outreach.

Chris Franco, a graduate student in communications at SLU, kept busy handling phone calls from the outreach network, police, volunteers and other centers. Food donations came primarily from students, he noted.

Franco, who attends St. Francis Xavier Parish on campus and has attended Jesuit schools exclusively, said there’s a need to show solidarity with “our most vulnerable neighbors. This is helping me see myself in the poor and marginalized. And to bear witness to the inherent dignity of those who have been shunned by our community.”

Taking part in Labre’s outreach, together with the people they befriend, “helps us all feel more human together,” Franco said.

Thomas said there is much fear of the unknown when people who have resources come in contact with people who don’t have resources. The SLU outreach seeks to build relationships so people can learn from one another, she said.

Rachel Mlsna, a SLU senior engineering and physics major from Milwaukee, helped in the kitchen making chili. She called Labre “my favorite thing about SLU. The food is an excuse for conversation and breaks down barriers.”

She said Labre is based on “seeing the divine and human in everyone regardless of their situation and perceived differences. Labre has the core values of the Catholic Church and everything I love about the Catholic Church.”

On the streets

About 7 p.m., students Mary O’Connell and Katy Beth Doman headed out in a minivan to look for people in need of shelter. They stopped in front of a building near campus where a man they know from their weekly outings slept in a doorway huddled under a pile of blankets. He thanked them for the offer to come out of the cold, adding that they are aware of his determination to stay outside.

They checked a few other places where they’d previously seen people who are homeless gathered for the night. Then they headed Downtown where a half dozen men were gathered around a steam grate, a few of them bundled under blankets. O’Connell and Doman handed out snacks and fruit after the men turned down their offer of shelter. One man recognized them from a visit the previous week. “Good to see you again,” he shouted.

Another man asked about their studies at SLU. Off to the side, leaning against a building, Harold White chatted extensively with the students, telling them about his life experiences, criticizing young people who join gangs, and talking about his faith. He said “there’s gotta be a God. How else would we get here?” He then referred to Psalm 23, stating “the Lord is my shepherd.”

The students’ search for the night soon was over when they received a message that the temporary shelter reached its maximum capacity of 30 people. They returned to Manresa Center to help where needed.

St. Louis Winter Outreach

Mary O’Connell and Katy Beth Doman checked on one of their homeless neighbor friends to see if he wanted to go to the emergency winter shelter with them on Jan. 30. As temperatures dropped to near zero degrees, students invited homeless people off the street and temporarily house them on SLU property.
St. Louis Winter Outreach works to protect people who live on the streets of St. Louis City during harsh and dangerous winter conditions by utilizing three teams of volunteers: Outreach, Shuttling and Emergency Shelters. Group leaders are responsible for ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of each team on their assigned night throughout the winter season.

Contact St. Louis Winter Outreach at www.stlwinteroutreach.org

>> St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry

Every week, Saint Louis University students prepare a simple meal, pile into vans and head out to the streets to visit their friends living on the streets.

The St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry with the Homeless uses food as an excuse for relationships. SLU students come together to cook and grow in fellowship. Afterward, they depart on various routes throughout the city to share in conversation and friendship with people experiencing homelessness.

SLU graduate Jackie Vova wrote about the relationships that are formed, writing for The Ignatian Solidarity Network, a national social justice network inspired by the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola. “Those nights on the streets, I was incredibly struck by the fact that these people invited us into their homes week after week. It just so happened that their homes did not have four walls and a roof like mine did. Though we shared meals together, that was only the beginning of sharing our hearts, our stories, our laughter,” Vova wrote.

“As children of God, they shared themselves with me and invited me deeper into the love in the heart of Christ,” Vova stated.

For information, email [email protected]

>> The saint

St. Benedict Joseph Labre is the patron saint of beggars and people who are homeless.

Born March 26, 1748, near Boulogne in France, the eldest of 15 children, he grew up in a middle-class family with many priest-relatives. He at first sought to enter a religious community. He later discerned that his true vocation was to seek to be a cloister within the world. He abandoned his materialistic upbringing and went on a pilgrimage throughout Europe taking in many shrines and churches. Dressed in rags, he relished prayerful isolation.

Settling in Rome, passers-by offered him food; otherwise he lived off scraps he could find by the side of the road. Sleeping on the streets, he was frequently harassed because of his appearance and accepted it in a spirit of penance. Others, however, recognized his saintly qualities. He was known in Rome as “the poor man of the Forty Hours devotion.”

He spent nights sleeping in the ruins of the Colosseum where many early Christians were martyred. He spent days praying in churches. His health began to fail, and he died on April 16, 1783, at age 35. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1881. His feast day is April 16.

Source: Oblate Sisters of St. Benedict Joseph Labre and Franciscan Media

The Labre Prayer

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, you gave up honor, money, and home for love of Jesus. Help us to set our hearts on Jesus and not on the things of this world. You lived in obscurity among the poor in the streets. Enable us to see Jesus in our poor brothers and sisters and not judge by appearances. Make us realize that in helping them we are helping Jesus. Show us how to befriend them and not pass them by.

Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, you had a great love for prayer. Obtain for us the grace of persevering prayer, especially adoration of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, poor in the eyes of men but rich in the eyes of God, pray for us. Amen

Source: The Labre Project at John Carroll University

Quinn Brown has been homeless on and off for the past two years. A former chef, Brown says the only way out of homelessness is a job and support system. He huddled with other men Downtown under blankets over the heat exhaust vent to keep warm on Jan. 30.

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