Parishioners at St. Anthony Parish in Loyal, Holy Family Parish in Willard and St. Mary Help of Christians Parish in Greenwood work with Catholic Charities to build the House of Mercy shelter in Loyal
Compassion and community. Those two words epitomize the creation of the House of Mercy homeless shelter in Loyal. The teamwork and collaborative effort between the three parishes in Loyal, Willard and Neillsville, the leadership of Father Steven Brice, numerous volunteers and Catholic Charities all contributed to a stronger community in rural Wisconsin.
Judy Morrow, a parishioner at Holy Family Parish in Willard and new housing coordinator for House of Mercy, said what started off as a joking comment has taken on a life of its own and grown beyond anything she could have imagined.
“I remember I went for a meeting at Father Brice’s house and I made a comment like, ‘Your house is big enough; we could have homeless people stay here.’ He turned around and said, ‘No, but I have a convent they could use,” Judy said. “There ended up being issues with the convent being so close to a school, but we ended up finding another building that was bigger. We definitely couldn’t have done this without Father and his willingness to keep going.”
Judy has been a dedicated volunteer at homeless shelters, food pantries and the Salvation Army for years, and even helped start a community center and shelter in Burlington, Wis., so when she saw a window of opportunity to start one in Loyal, she knew it was God’s plan.
It can be so hard for people to ask for help, but the more they can feel your compassion and no judgment and like they’re part of the community, the more comfortable they will feel coming back and seeking help.
“I’ve been part of a shelter before, but you need someone like Father to navigate the landscape. Father Brice likes to say that starting a shelter is all about compassion and community,” she said. “All the parishes just supported it so well, and even though there are services out there for people, not everyone knows about them, so we need to walk with people, not just talk to them.”
Once Father and Judy had the idea, they needed a plan. The next step was to reach out to the experts in starting a shelter: Catholic Charities.
The director of marketing for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of La Crosse, Karen Becker, says the idea to start a homeless shelter in Loyal was nothing short of providential.
“It’s truly amazing how it all started. They had a great idea, but didn’t really know how to go about it, so that’s when they partnered with us,” she said. “When the convent caused controversy, they looked at a building downtown that the bank was trying to sell. Father Brice then reached out to local businesses and other non-Catholic churches and really rallied the community behind this project. This was truly a collaborative effort.”
Once they had a building, they were able to set a budget and hire employees and form an advisory board, which was made up of 15 local community members and business owners, to collaborate and plan the next steps.
One board member, Pete Schultz, not only joined to help support the shelter but he brings some very real insight on homelessness to the team.
Pete was in a car wreck in 1996 and was permanently disabled. After being hospitalized for nearly five months, he couldn’t walk anymore and ended up losing his construction job and his apartment.
“I lost everything I had: no job, no career and suddenly no place to live. I managed to hold on to my pickup truck and lived in the covered truck bed for about two months. I tried to find housing, but it takes time,” he said. “Being homeless for a week or even a day is too much. I at least was a single man; I can’t imagine if I was homeless with a family or as a single mom.”
He said he wants to encourage people not to judge any person going through a tough situation because becoming homeless can happen to anyone, at any time. You may be one accident or layoff from work away from being homeless.
“If you see someone that’s homeless or just having a hard time getting by, don’t be so quick to judge, it could easily be you. In that situation, what you need is a roof over your head and you need it now — you’re concerned for right now. It’s not as simple as just getting a job,” he said. “You need to take care of those basic needs first and the rest will come later, which is what the House of Mercy will do. It’s going to be an asset for the county, no doubt in my mind. And just because you’re in a rural area doesn’t mean there isn’t a need.”
Pete remembers what it felt like to be in such a seemingly hopeless situation and is doing what he can to help others find that hope now.
“It’s so easy to feel hopeless, especially when you try to get help and you get turned down. It just takes the wind out of your sails, and I understand how easy it could be to turn to stealing or drugs,” he said. “I always knew being homeless was not the plan for me, but I had to get over my pride because I did not want to ask for help.”
Judy said being a part of the shelter’s development and just being involved with the homeless and struggling community has made her own faith stronger, and that as a volunteer you can really help to break down those barriers of pride and judgment.
“It takes the same amount of courage to volunteer as those who need the help, because, in my opinion, you have to let your guard down and be their friend when they need one the most,” she said. “Judgment is a waste of time. It can be so hard for people to ask for help, but the more they can feel your compassion and no judgment and like they’re part of the community, the more comfortable they will feel coming back and seeking help.”
The House of Mercy is a unique shelter that will bring to its residents all of the professional services of Catholic Charities and collaborating Clark County social services, the support of Church volunteers and the assistance of people of good will. But, as Karen emphasized, you have to treat the most pressing needs first and the rest will come naturally.
“A lot of times people think well if they get a job or get rehab for alcohol abuse then they will be fine, but studies show that if someone who is homeless can get into housing first, then that security of housing allows them to break through other barriers at a greater success rate,” she said. “If they don’t have to worry about where to sleep or if their family is safe, then they can begin to worry about the other problems with better success.”
The House of Mercy, or HoM as they like to call it, will have a few different housing options. Upstairs are long-term apartments where families can stay for two months to two years, depending on their needs and how long it takes to develop the necessary skills to get on their feet. Thirty percent of their income goes to paying their rent and they will meet with the housing coordinator to learn budgeting and other tools for success. There will also be apartments downstairs that are a more temporary fix, where someone can stay for up to two months while they work to find a permanent housing situation. Karen said a warming center is also in the works and, with the continued dedication from the parishes, it will only continue to grow.
“Honestly, we just couldn’t have done any of this without the support of the parishes. For instance, each parish sponsored a room to renovate and we even had someone who used to stage houses, donate all the furniture and decorations for all the apartments,” Karen said. “Father Brice named it House of Mercy for the Jubilee Year, but also because the initials spell home, which is really all anyone wants. Homelessness is a situation, not a person.”
By Monica Organ
TO LEARN MORE about the House of Mercy shelter project or how to get involved, visit cclse.org
Each apartment is sponsored by a parish and is fully furnished for the new tenants.