Inspiration from Winter Outreach

 Teka Childress helped found Winter Outreach, which was given an award in 2014 from MASW.  This is her acceptance speech.

Thank you to the Missouri Association for Social Welfare for having us here tonight and for giving this award to St. Louis winter outreach. I also want to thank and offer congratulations to the others getting awards tonight. When I was thinking about what I might say, I took a minute to read up a little on the other awardees. And, don’t worry, it was all good.Truly it made me feel very grateful for your work.

I thought of the silly little line from the Music Man that for some reason I have always loved–“Not bad for a little town like river city”— Well we are a river city, though not such a little town, but—We are in MO after all, not a state known for being a bastion of progressivism. So to these awardees—to Martin, Karen, MO Medicaid Coalition, Nancy and Jamala–and to the MASW for their over one century of efforts to fight for the rights of the oppressed—let’s give a big hand.

The other thing that struck me in reading about what you all were doing–was just how connected all of our issues are; how much each of our areas is related to and has an impact on the others. Tonight I will mostly address the issue of homelessness but,–just think how much that is connected to just jobs, to healthcare and Medicaid, to children’s issues and like everything in our society to racism and oppression.housing2

Our various works create a tapestry—each of our efforts catching the light at a slightly different angle and in a slightly different way each producing its own color. The inter-woven-ness of our efforts create a picture of just what it might look like in the City of St. Louis if we fought with our dying breath to show how every single person mattered,

how workers must be treated justly so that they can simply feed, clothe and house themselves and their families, how it is only right that people have access to healthcare,

how children’s needs and rights must be protected how we must and will overcome centuries of racism by addressing it everywhere it pops up, including in ourselves and in our own organizations.

Let us work so that nothing keeps us apart. Life is too precious and there are so many great things to be done. That brings me back to my own group—The St. Louis Winteroutreach. I can proudly say that I am not the leader of this group b/c in this group I promise you, there are no followers. On a good day, I do lead myself.

St. Louis Winter outreach is a motley crew of brilliant, amazing and ridiculously determined people. I am going to introduce you to several of them shortly. They are the living proof of one of the two points I want to make tonight. After an adult life lived among homeless men women and children I am absolutely convinced of two things:

Homelessness is an epidemic in our country and in our city, And I believe there are a hundred things we can do about it.

There are approximately 600,000 people homeless in the U.S. at any given time. Homelessness is not a new problem. There have been wayfarers for as long as there have been people I suppose, but the issue of homelessness exploding in this country has its roots back to the 1970s.Several things occurred in the 1970s and ‘80s particularly, that increased the numbers exponentially.winter outreach2

In the 1970’s

An increased population of post war baby boomers hit the job market. Changes in technology and economic policies brought about an intensification of globalization. This shift has affected both the types and numbers of jobs available to people in the U.S. Growing inflation of the 70’s largely fueled by rising oil prices was not reflected in increased resources for welfare payments and other human needs programs and so greatly reduced their real value. Vietnam Vets returned home often greatly wounded and alienated. A new generation of psychotropic medications allowed for patients to live outside of mental institutions propelling the closing of mental institutions without providing the real resources needed to provide for those with mental illnesses now living in our communities

And, if this were not bad enough, things got worse in the 1980s. Reaganomics promoted deregulation and changing tax structures. These further fueled globalization bringing about the closing of U.S. businesses that had been in existence for generations and which had provided middle and working class income jobs. To add insult to injury, during the Reagan Administration the budget for public housing and sect. 8 was cut in half.

Since the 1970s and ‘80s, these trends have only continued and worsened. With regard to Resources for those in need—we saw In the 1990s the withdrawl of a promise of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. This promise was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. With regard to Veterans—we’ve seen an increase in wounded returning veterans. In an interview last week on the scandal in the Veterans’ Administration, Senator Durban reported that 50 percent of returning vets are applying for disability. Even having some sense of this problem I was shocked and thought that this was perhaps the real scandal. With regard to housing—we’ve seen more and more families forced to spend more than half of their incomes on rent. In an NPR story from yesterday, U.S. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan said we are in the midst of the “worst rental affordability crisis ever”. That story went on to discuss a problem in D.C. that highlighted the ever-present pattern of development—gentrification that further leads to the loss of needed housing. This pattern of course goes back even further than the 70s into the Post World War II when these programs were called, “urban renewal.” The pattern always seems to repeat itself, involving bringing people with more resources into an area and leaving those, with-out, left- out. Loving history, I began to think of this even further and realized it’s really the story of history, Columbus “discovering” America, the people of European descent heading out west moving Native Americans onto reservations. It will be an amazing day when we learn a different way. ronald-reagan

Lastly, then with regards to the overall economy, we have reached a placewhere we have the greatest economic inequality since the great depression. So is it any surprise we have a lot of homeless people. What does this look like in human terms?-

I think of an endearing young couple from a small town in MO who had become homeless. As they caught a ride to a winter shelter, they talked about how they were in school and trying to make it to class, trying to figure out transportation. They carried their backpacks on their back, ever hopeful.

I think of a young man who was about to age out of the foster care system. He had taken a job that involved traveling out of town and it promised the pay he would need to start on his own. Of course, like many of these types of jobs that I hear about it dematerialized immediately. He went back to St. Charles where he had been in foster care, his home since he was 12 years old and finding nowhere to stay went to what he thought was an abandoned building. He was arrested for trespassing and spent a couple of months in jail and now is homeless downtown and owes close to $2000 for the pleasure of receiving hospitality from the St. Charles jails since they charge $55 a day for this.—I guess that’s cheaper than some hotels…

I think of course of the many that I encounter in my work and with winter outreach who are suffering from serious mental illnesses. I think of the way too many children I meet regularly, I think of the incredible numbers of older women finding themselves homeless for the first time and in shock of what to do for themselves. And, of course, I think of those who like so many others in our society, are struggling with sobriety and trying to do this in what feels like a hopeless situation.

So I have given you the bad news it is time for the good news. I was thinking of something I heard a couple of years ago when I was at a Catholic Worker gathering and we were trying to gather enough money to pay for the expenses of the gathering. One of my friends stood up and said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news—the good news is that we have enough resources to pay our bill, the bad news is—some of it’s still in your pocket. But for me, actually this is the good news—we do have lots of resources and I have every confidence we will use them and I have reason to feel this way—because of what I’ve seen with this St. Louis winter outreach group. “ winter outreach

So let me tell you a little bit about what we do and how we came to be. On nights when it is 20 degrees or below or when there is precipitation, the winter outreach team puts into action a whole series of activities. We have eight shelters some of which will open on any given night. One of us will head over to the Bridge at Centenary Church and sign up people for whom we have space and arrange for our shuttle team to come pick them up after dinner. Then in the evening our outreach team will meet up at Mokabes to go out to look for people at risk, to offer rides to shelter and give out food and blankets if people decline to go in. How we began this is a story that changed my life.

One late evening as it was getting dark, I went out to look for one of my clients at BJC who had schizophrenia. He often slept at the bus stop at Gravois and Hampton because it was heated. I had gone to look for him because the temperatures were expected to go down to around 8 degrees. I did not find my client but I did find a man named, Ed. He was slumped over on a bench and I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I went up to him and he had been drinking quite a lot.

Because of his state and the situation I decided to call 911. Foolishly, I felt confident they would take him and so went on to look for the person I had come for b/c I was due back at Karen House to help the women pick out gifts for each other since it was just a few days before Christmas. I still did not find the man I was looking for but when I looked up I realized the ambulance was pulling away.

I drove back to the bus stop and to my horror saw Ed still sitting there. I re-called 911 and spoke to someone connected to the ambulance service I believe and explained the situation. I begged them to return and take this man to the ER. They refused to do so.  I tried to figure out what to do, realizing he was in too bad of shape to get him into my car at this point. I went and got numerous blankets from Walgreens and covered him up and then spoke to the bus driver asking her to check on him through the night as she drove through.

I went off to Karen House and was there until about 10 pm and then upon arriving home called the police and asked them to check on him through the night.  I woke up about 2am and thought I should perhaps go check on him but I did not. When I arrived at work the next morning I heard he had died that night. When I learned Ed had died it was indeed one of the lowest moments of my life. To put it simply I felt that I had not loved him enough—had not given it my all to keep him alive.

Each year there is a memorial for those who have died on the longest night of the year and that year I stood in the foyer of the Centenary Church and simply asked if anyone would join me to see if we could do what we could do to prevent this from happening.  soup-kitchen-line

It was from that night that day by day and year by year the most amazing group of people has formed. When Ed had died he was alone and after he died I felt alone. Because of this group none of us is alone anymore, neither the homeless nor ourselves. Our lives are connected. So, finally, let me introduce these people to you If you would all stand–.

Shuttle team. We came up with the shuttle idea b/c we had so many folks needing shelter that were at the Centenary it did not make sense to go out to look for them and hope to find them. So, a couple of years ago, Mo Costello suggested we separate out the shuttling from outreaching and it was a great decision.

After deciding this, I innocently asked Trevor Holland if he would coordinate this effort. I have no idea if he realized what he was in for. Especially this past winter, Trevor was out there driving people to shelter almost every night. Trevor’s wife Chris is with him tonight.Among the others of the shuttle team who are here tonight are: Lisa Roth with her husband, Tom Roth, Matt Brazelton and Jeff Jensen. They’ve done an amazing and generous job.

Outreach team-We have lots of generous people who go do outreach but among them we have people who coordinate nights and go out night after night. Let me introduce them– Becky Hassler, my co-coordinator who drives in to Mokabes after a long day as a nurse midwife at St. Mary’s hospital even though she has to get up the next day at 4:30 am.

If a person is homeless they will be found by Holly Schoeder. I tease Tina Busch that no one will want to go on outreach with her b/c they will never get home. Whitney Priebe not only does outreach but like most of our group takes on several roles. In addition to outreach she takes all of our meeting notes and sends them out, and takes care of our listserve and website.

Two people, who could not be here, who have really saved winte routreach and help hold it together are Laura Shields and Mo Costello.Laura had to be at her grandchild’s graduation tonight but I was surprised she let me come speak without her being here. She worries that as I talk about all of us walking into heaven hand in hand, I am not mentioning who’s going to get the coffee and bring the plates and cups! jesus homeless


Mo Costello who is with her mother tonight, has so generously opened up her place to us. Mokabes is truly a village.Both Mo and Laura mentioned to me that in addition to being sad b/c they love to hear me talk, they were really sad b/c they wanted to be here to honor Jamala Rogers.

I also want to thank Mike Baldwin who not only went out with me when no one was available, but who forgave me when I worried him terribly by not communicating when I was out late one night. He had to put the word out on the whole listserve, “Has anyone seen Teka?”

Our eight shelters:

In addition to our eight shelters we were joined by the city shelter and Hence Forland is here tonight with his daughter, Dione. Hence worked so hard and had so many people but provided a safe place for people to stay.

Jerry King who is here both helped a lot with food and other items for the shelter for the city and is also part of our vision team and working with us on possibly opening a new shelter this winter.Wanda and Marie Andrews and Christy Estrada are here from—Sts Teresa and Bridget. A great thing about our group is that people do the things they are a genius at.

One of the most beloved people among the homeless is Kathleen Becherer, director of Americorps. Her shelter called, “My Place” truly feels like home to people. She allows those who stay to help run it and they feel so respected there.Megan Heeney, Cathy Carmody and Bill Krenn and group helped to run Winco, a window company. If any of you have a business, do not think you need to be a church to join us. Deborah Sheperis from One St. Louis who helps to operate a shelter at the Metropolitan Community Church on Broadway has been so steadfast. Mark Fredericks helped us to open a shelter at the St. Louis Friends’ Meeting House. Jeff Goldone from Christ Church is here with us tonight. He has been running that shelter which has been supported by Dean Michael Kinman. We also have a shelter at College Church who could not be here with us tonight. It is called, “Xavier Inn.” Lastly, I want to introduce you to Rhonda and Glenn Haley and tell you about their shelter which is leading the way for us. At one point they took up to 117 people. One day when I went to the Centenary to sign up people for the shelter, a man came up to me to say he had to go to this shelter, Calvary Missionary Baptist, because he needed a haircut. This is the incredible type of hospitality offered at this Church. And, as if what they have done is not enough, we were approached by them saying they still felt they wanted to do more. They have truly been inspiring. Childress_Teka-300x165

In ending I want to tell you a little about our plans for the future. When we met at the end of this winter I have to say this usual lively group looked pretty exhausted. It was a hard winter. We were on almost every night it seemed like and we found ridiculously large number of people needing shelter, about 400.

Additionally there was a great deal of tension downtown that came into the limelight this past fall when a petition was filed to withdraw New Life Evangelistic Center’s hotel license. St. Louis winter outreach members made public their opposition to this effort, seeing it as a backward approach to dealing with the problem. New Life and the homeless are targeted for a problem that they did not create and certainly do not desire.

We sponsored a gathering at Christ Church Cathedral to address the tension and to call for the necessity of looking for further ways to provide for people’s needs. We were grateful to have been able to help keep people safe in the winter but we are aware they deserve so much more. We formed a vision team which has been looking at what we might do. When I said they were hundred things that we could do to help homelessness I was really not exaggerating.

Our hope in the St. Louis Winteroutreach is to decentralize what has long been seen as problem for the Federal gov’t to solve. We can and certainly should lobby for every bill that moves resources to provide for human needs and we should push for all legislation that provides for a more just distribution of wealth

Yet we need not wring our hands waiting for a government filled with legislators put into office by special interest groups to provide for our neighbors, saying I am sorry you are suffering if only the government would do something. Those of us with the privilege to have somehow obtained resources not only have a responsibility but also an incredible opportunity to do something right now. Love_is_Freedom

St. Louis Winteroutreach is seeking ways to welcome the homeless back into our neighborhoods, rather than to leave them clustered downtown on city streets. How do we do this? If only I could the perfect solution. But there are really lots of perfect solutions. We do not have a blueprint for how to finally end homelessness but we have a blueprint for how to start.

Our vision team plans to go on a Road Show. We plan to reach out to churches and nbhds who might want to help just as these churches have, by offering any type of housing for the homeless which would work for their community. Perhaps by joining our winter overflow shelter network Or by opening a winter long shelter, or Or a year-round shelter or Perhaps looking at partnering with some homeless individuals or families and taking part in rehabbing housing or developing tiny houses- a model being done in Madison and in Austin.

We welcome any invitation to meet w/ interested groups. We’ve already had meetings with several different groups, a church community in Hyde Park, a church in the Central West End, a and a creative ad hoc group of people, looking to open a shelter this winter. We will simply see what’s possible and we will try anything that might work–conventional or not For what has been conventional about the relationships you built Rhonda with the families you met and the children who adopted you as their grandmother. Or for you Tina going out late at night searching for people at risk?

One of my favorite sayings is one from St Augustine who said, “My heart shall wander restless until it rests in thee.” What this means for us today, whether we have faith in God or simply faith in the possibility of love, is that Our hearts shall wander restless until people are paid a just wage for their work Our hearts shall wander restless until everyone in this country has access to necessary healthcare. Our hearts shall wander restless until children are protected from the folly of our system. Our hearts shall wander restless until people stop making money off of prisons and stop imprisoning children, and our hearts shall wander restless until everyone has a home. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you so much for your companionship in this sojourn.