St. Clement’s Deacon Tim on Homelessness


This story originally appeared in the September 14-20, 2015, issue of Streetwise.  See the original here. 

By Ron Polaniecki

ChicagoShares1Deacon Tim Sullivan of St. Clement Church, 642 W. Deming Place, knows firsthand about people who are homeless and needy. He’s been in their midst, first in Detroit and now in Chicago, providing food and assistance for more than 12 years.

And among the learnings he underscores is that while homeless people are varied, many are seeking more than just a few coins in a cup.

According to Deacon Tim, it’s not uncommon for homeless people to have low self-esteem and to feel ashamed. And while they might get used to being treated without respect, repetition doesn’t make it easy. Further, he adds, even though many are pleased to chat, they may not be fast to share their stories – until they trust you. A motto, says Deacon Tim, among the homeless: “Suspicion = Safety.”

It’s no surprise, however, that by treating them with respect and offering assistance, Deacon Tim has earned the trust of many.

Flashback: In the summer of 2002 while in Boston, Deacon Tim met a woman who made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the poor. He made a mental note: Wow, this is simple and yet effective!

And then he met a homeless woman. He gave her money and went on. But something made him return to give her more money.

Deacon Tim recalls, “I asked her name, and ended by saying, ‘Pam, I’ll pray for you.’ As I walked away, she asked my name, and then said, ‘Tim, I’ll pray for you.’” That day, affirms Deacon Tim, “I saw the homeless in a new light.”

“Inspired by the woman I saw in Boston, I started a peanut butter and jelly ministry in Detroit,” he goes on. “We had four volunteers and fed 30 people on Saturdays.” Then he notes, they added juice boxes. And more volunteers. And they grew. For Christmas, they served 450 dinners. Next, they incorporated and began serving 450-500 people a week.

“When I came to St. Clement Church, four years ago, I built on the program that was already in place by increasing our assistance from twice a month to weekly.

Deacon Tim explains the details: Volunteers from St. Clement bring six bags filled with two sandwiches, two hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, a juice box and chips. Then every Friday, beginning at 9:30 we handout the bags, usually serving about 100 people.

“Before the distribution, we host a ‘coffee and donuts’ hospitality time providing an opportunity to connect with our guests,” he adds.

Who comes? According to Deacon Tim, there are truly homeless people who live on the street, others who live in shelters, and those who have a place to stay but not enough to eat. They all come on foot whether they’re from Lincoln Park or downtown.

“Each of the needy people we serve have a story,” says Deacon Tim. “One man had owned a furniture store, but then his wife died of cancer and everything changed. There are military veterans on hard times, ex-cons who want to work but who are virtually unhire-able.” The list, and the stories, goes on.

Somewhere in the conversation, Deacon Tim slips in that he once fell on hard times and was homeless himself. Later, he adds, he gained real-life insights one day when he stationed himself near a church as an “undercover” homeless person.

For Deacon Tim, serving homeless people is more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A street person he once knew died with no family. Although it was not easy to do, Deacon Tim was able to claim the body and arrange for proper burial through a generous local funeral home. More important, he adds, “I presided over a prayer service for this otherwise nameless human being.”

In addition to the obvious objections to helping homeless people that Deacon Tim hears (“it’s inconvenient, it’s dangerous”), another one is, “Don’t these people know they can apply to agencies for help?”

“Yes,” says Deacon Tim. “But a three-month waiting list does not solve today’s problem. And for those who may have disabilities, making that initial phone call can be an insurmountable task.”

Deacon Tim makes it simple: Chicago’s needy people are as a different as Chicagoans themselves. “Some have a great sense of humor; others love Chicago sports teams.”

“But what’s universal,” he says, “is their need for food (often requiring them to dig in garbage cans and scrounge in dumpsters) and their desire for dignity.”

Another way to help people in need
In addition to Friday meals, Deacon Tim reports that on Saturday morning St. Clement gives out what ever Chicago Shares it has on hand.

Chicago Shares, a not-for-profit corporation founded in 1993, provides an answer to the age-old question, “Can you spare some change so I can get something to eat?”

Here’s how it works: Chicagoans can purchase Chicago Shares vouchers at area places of worship and on the web. Then, these $1 vouchers can be given to needy people. Recipients may redeem these vouchers at participating stores and restaurants for food and other basic necessities, but never for alcohol or tobacco.

While voucher sales have varied, average sales for the past three years are approximately $50,000 annually. About 80% of the vouchers are redeemed. Assuming a meal price of $5, that’s some 8,000 meals provided each year. Chicago Shares has donated its excess funds in the forms of grants to support other Chicago area organizations that help the needy.

Encouraged by the success of the program, the committed cadre of Chicago Shares ( volunteers are seeking to grow capacity by adding more places that will sell Shares and more merchants that will accept them.

St. Clement, which has been selling vouchers nearly 20 years, averages $7,000 annually in sales.
Chicago Shares is an efficient, safe and convenient way to help needy Chicagoans.