Rows of well-made beds fill the women’s dormitory at Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph, the longtime homeless shelter in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.
It’s late in the year 2012. The room is empty, but for a few volunteers and an elderly female resident.
There since May of 2012, the woman was leaving the emergency overnight shelter, packing her belongings into plastic bags as smooth jazz crackled from the well-worn radio on her bed.
Curtis Cotten, 60, a case manager working at the center, helped load bag after bag onto a small pushcart. Tall with a slender frame, Cotton looms over the petite woman as they walked out together. The resident had found a new apartment, Cotten said proudly.
“Some people can become complacent living here,” he said. “We try to help them get back on their feet and out into the real world. We want all of them to work. We want them to be responsible.”
Opened in 1963 as a half-way house for ex-offenders, the Franciscan Outreach Association shelters more than 200 people a night at the North Lawndale shelter on 2715 W. Harrison. It’s a service that is desperately needed, representatives of the Outreach insist. A collection of facilities and programs designed to care for and rehabilitate the homeless, Franciscan has seen better days.
In the wake of the recession, the association still hopes to raise another $300,000 in new or increased donations from the previous year’s total. But it’s been forced to cut benefits and the number of full-time positions available to employees.
“The services we provide are life-preserving,” said Diana Faust, executive director of the Franciscan Outreach Association. “We have to turn people away all of the time. Whether they seek shelter because of the cold in the winter or because of violence in the summer, we don’t have enough room.”
The association, which Faust said relies heavily on donations to meet its estimated $1.6 million yearly operating cost, has seen a recent decline in charitable giving. But she’s unable to site specifics due to a recent change in the Franciscan’s accounting systems.
“The small donations and the large donations have stayed the same. But the mid-tier donations have declined,” she said. “They are the ones who have been most impacted by the economic downturn.”
Late last year, five full-time positions at Franciscan were transitioned into 12 separate part-time jobs. It was a move administrators insisted would save $150,000 a year as they attempt to balance their operating budget without altering the services available to residents.
Andrew Brewer, 45, an employee at the center and a former resident, said his hours were reduced from 40- to 30-per week. Regardless, he said, he remains motivated.
“I want people to go to bed with a good meal,” he said. “I want to put a smile on their faces. I want to help them.”
Brewer cherishes the idea of giving people the opportunity to redeem themselves, something the Franciscan House gave him seven years ago.
“All these people want is a chance,” he said. “There are a lot of good brothers and sisters out there, regardless of race. People deserve more than what society gives them. Here, they can get the help they need.”
Cotten, who has worked to help the impoverished for 13 years, also empathizes with what residents are experiencing.
“There was a time in my life when I was in their position,” he said. “[Drugs] weren’t my problem, they were my solution. But I’ve been sober for 18 years now. I learned how to work. Now, I’m hopeful enough to give hope, and that’s what a lot of these people need.”
Administrators hope to raise the necessary funds through donations while becoming less reliant on bequests, or donations left to the Outreach in someone’s will.
For Cotten, he wonders if that time will come soon enough.
“I’ve had offers for jobs that paid more but turned them down because I’m needed here,” he said. “I haven’t had a raise in two years. I don’t want to leave, but I have to think about myself as well.”