Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dorothy Day House in Memphis: Reaching out to homeless families in one of the nation's poorest cities

(To the right, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The two-story, century-old house sits on a hill next to a vacant lot on Poplar near Cleveland, between downtown and midtown. A Buddhist temple is nearby, and so is the Sacred Heart Church, where masses are held in Vietnamese and Spanish. Beggars with rickety grocery carts wander the pockmarked streets, glancing up at cars that only stop when the light turns red.

When Memphis native Polly Jones walks into that house on the hill, she feels something she doesn’t feel anywhere else in the city. “There’s not a lot of love in my city,” says the 22-year-old homeless single mother of two toddlers, boys aged two and three. “This house, I would rather be here than anywhere else right now.”

Jones and her boys have been at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality at 1429 Poplar Avenue since May. She plans to leave next February after getting her GED and a fresh start on a new life that includes a future career as a surgical nurse. “I want to better myself for my kids. … Everything they do for you here is for the better. When you come here, you come with a goal.”

The Jones family is one of three families at the Dorothy Day House, the only refuge for homeless families in this predominantly black city of 650,000, the nation’s poorest large metropolitan area and one of its poorest cities. Half the children in Memphis are poor. The city’s other missions limit themselves to either men or women.

(Sister Maureen Griner)

 “The whole idea of a Dorothy Day house is to answer a need that’s not being met,” says Sister Maureen Griner, executive director. “It’s the hope you bring to people who are really desperate. By the time people get here, they don’t have pocket change, evicted, probably living in a car. … People don’t think about homeless families. There are hundreds in this city every night.”

Jones came to the Dorothy Day House after a series of life’s blows. She lost both her mother, who had drug problems, and the grandmother who reared her in 2011. “That was a tremendous putdown, and I was pregnant with my first son. I didn’t know my biological father.”

She did factory work for a while but her younger son’s asthma kept pulling her away to take care of him. “It was hard. I kept getting discouraged. When you are a mother, you have choices to make. … I made my son my priority.”

The two-story house on Poplar Avenue is one of more than 185 Catholic Worker communities around the world. Each is independent in its commitment to voluntary poverty, prayer, and nonviolence, and in its outreach to the poor and marginalized of society. Other than the occasional grant, they all depend on private contributions with little or no support from government or sometimes even the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Day, who died at 83 in 1980, was the radical journalist who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with French peasant-poet-prophet Peter Maurin. Inspired by the social teachings of Jesus and in Catholic tradition, they launched the Catholic Worker newspaper and first hospitality house in New York City at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

“What we do is very little, but it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes,” Day once wrote.  “Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. … Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.”

In the mid-1930s, Day traveled to Memphis, where she championed the “dispossessed” members of the embattled Southern Tenant Farmers Union (see my Labor South post on July 14, 2015). “I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many … children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold.”

Sister Maureen, 68, a native of Louisville, Ky., who helped found the Dorothy Day House in Memphis 10 years ago, is keeping the flame of Day’s vision alive. The house is only big enough for three families, and she and her small staff have to turn away as many as 10 families a week.

Still, they’ve helped over 40 families get back on their feet over the past decade, and Sister Maureen envisions a “Dorothy Day Village” in the future where they can accommodate more of the needy. A 13-member board oversees the house’s operations, and hundreds of volunteers have come through its doors to help.

“It’s painful to turn people away,” she says. “Dorothy Day said put a pot of coffee on the stove and a pot of soup, and God will take care of the rest.”

A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

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