New street outreach helps homeless men find housing

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Homeless and living in a well-worn minivan on a shopping center parking lot where he works, Kevin Wolden was dealing with mental health issues stemming from some rough patches in his life.

Reluctant to accept charity, Wolden swallowed his pride and called Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service in St. Charles for help in getting housing. Andre Wise, a social worker with the agency's new homeless outreach program, set up a time to meet Wolden on the parking lot to assess his situation.

Driving a donated car with Sts. Joachim and Ann's logo and "Street Outreach" on the door panels, Wise — whose role is to find the homeless men — was joined by Laura Steinhoff, a social service worker from the agency, who links clients with housing and other services and provides case management for at least a year. They were accompanied by a paramedic from SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital-St Charles, Kevin Henderson. They called Wolden, who had been resting in the van, to find his spot on the lot.

Henderson checked Wolden's vital signs, and urged him to go for a walk and drink plenty of water — it was a bit cooler than a recent heat spell but still hot. Wolden was hungry, and appreciated a bag of food and other items he was given, unwrapping and eating a granola bar right away. The team was worried about Wolden's mental health and, seeing evidence that he had been cutting himself, urged him to go to the hospital.

But Wolden resisted, telling them that he'd been hospitalized once before and stayed longer than he felt was needed. He explained to the team that he was on health leave from his job, getting half his regular pay, and was under a doctor's care and in outpatient therapy. He just began taking medicine that will take a few more weeks to become effective. He shops around to find the best price on his medicine, which isn't covered by insurance.

Therapy, especially in a group setting, is helping. "I want to better myself. I'm trying to do everything I can and take what I've learned and apply it."

Weak moments come when his friends aren't available to talk. A marriage that fell apart led to some of his difficulties, and he turned to living in his van due to "a toxic environment" of drug use and verbal abuse where he'd been living. He took the blame for a few of his other problems.

Steinhoff assured Wolden that she'll begin right away to look for housing. She and Wise asked him to look at his situation now as a starting point, adding that he has more resources than many others, such as his job and a vehicle. Henderson encouraged the young man, telling him he'd been in a rough spot himself 20 years ago after leaving the military, but took a day-by-day approach and now is a firefighter and medic.

Until a few months ago, Sts. Joachim and Ann didn't have a program to help single men needing housing. The Street Outreach program, which was a goal for about 10 years, is the last in a string of community needs that have been filled under the leadership of Miriam Mahan, who was among the founders of the agency that grew out of Sts. Joachim and Ann Church. Pam Struckhoff, director of program services, worked tirelessly on getting the grant.

Federal funds distributed through the Missouri Housing Development Commission helped start the pilot program that focuses on basic needs, case management, housing options and access to health care for homeless people in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties.

"I'm super excited to be a part of providing people with housing first, then working on employment, mental health services and more," Steinhoff said.

The outreach patrols the community and finds homeless people in expected places, such as near a Salvation Army soup kitchen, and some hidden sites such as woods or under highway overpasses.

Wise, a native of Jamaica, once was homeless himself. He is a 2012 graduate of Lindenwood University. He chose the field because of a desire to help others and make a difference. Steinhoff is a St. Charles native who relates to her clients from her background growing up in a single-parent family and works diligently on following up on them. She is an Air Force veteran and a graduate of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

A job loss, death in the family or mental illness can wipe away an individual's foundation in no time. Issues such as the inability to make child support, a criminal record, lack of affordable housing or debt lead some people to drop out of society. Yet when connected with the right resources they can overcome these barriers, the social workers explained. Affordable housing is hard to find in St. Charles.

The program pays the rent initially, then a portion of the rent for a time after the client finds a job.

After leaving Wolden and jumping his car battery so he could drive to group therapy, the Street Outreach team stopped by a small apartment they found for a man who had been living under a highway overpass after walking from Elsberry to Sts. Joachim and Ann's offices in St. Charles to seek assistance. Vito Pisciotta had worked as a security guard for a couple dozen years but left the job when his parents became ill and then died.

Pisciotta is eager to please his friends from the Care Service. He has adjusted well in the apartment, making friends with other tenants and picking up a few odd jobs on building maintenance from the owner. Traveling on a bike he received from Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, he was busy looking for a job and following up on tips from the outreach crew. Soon afterward, he found a full-time job in maintenance.

Pisciotta expressed his gratitude to the social workers several times. "I was down, and they brought me back up," he said. "They're like angels. I'm where I want to be."

An older-model TV that Henderson brought for him needed a small part before it could be used, but Pisciotta was in no hurry for it, noting that he'd listen to the baseball All-Star game on a radio they'd given him earlier.

Later, Henderson said "every time we help someone, it gives me chills. It just feels good."

Wise told about a day they met up with Pisciotta and gave him a ride to the soup kitchen, adding that it meant a lot to Pisciotta that they would give a ride to a homeless person. "I was stuck on making sure I got this guy housed," Wise said. 

Serving those in need always a priority for Miriam Mahan 

In the last months leading to her retirement as executive director of Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, Miriam Mahan's excitement level was off the charts.

Not about days of relaxation — she'll still serve the agency as the new social justice advocate — but about new programs that had just been launched at the social service provider bringing hope to people of need in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties. Included is an effort to reach out to who she called "those most in need — the chronic homeless."

Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 by five volunteers from the social ministry of Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish. It started with $500 in cash, and 35 years later it has a budget of more than $3 million and serves more than 5,600 people in 1,860 households each year. Though it now is an independent agency, it receives funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal and works with churches, schools and others to address homelessness and hunger in the community.

A refugee from Cuba, Mahan lived with the Sisters of Mercy in St. Louis in Mercita Hall in University City while she attended Mercy High School. As volunteer at the Chronic Hospital with the 14 Club (focused on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy), she witnessed disparity in patient treatment based on income and social status and was determined to help people in need. A 1967 graduate of Mercy, she later became a registered nurse. She and her husband, Dale, were married in 1971.

She continued efforts to bring help people who are suffering, and after moving to St. Charles County saw the need for resources in her community, especially after her parish called her to respond to a farm family that lost their land and home. An ecumenical group of volunteers have worked hard since then to address mental health needs, children's services and other issues.

They sought a solution to problems in what was a rural community that was ballooning with people moving from other areas. "We have come a long way," Mahan said. Establishing a community mental health agency came first, then a board for services with developmentally disabled children, but no larger-scale effort then addressed the poorest of the poor.

Mahan, whose life and ministry is fueled by her Catholic faith, won't take credit for the success of Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, citing the work of the staff members and many volunteers. The vision for the agency came from the then-pastor of the parish, Father Robert Leibrecht, whose concerns for the poor extended beyond the parish boundaries.

Collaboration is part of the success as well. Partners include other churches, community groups and others.

Mahan's retirement was effective July 26, the feast of Sts. Joachim and Ann and anniversary of the agency's start date — "passing the baton but not leaving the band," as she called it. Deacon A. John Lipin of Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish is the new executive director. He was director of finance at the Care Service from 2009-12 before moving to Good Shepherd Children and Family Services as business director. He continued to volunteer at the Care Service.

"We have built a fabulous agency through the years," Mahan said. "We have a very strong staff that will carry on the ministry. I have no doubt the organization will continue to grow and to serve."

In its efforts to serve people in crisis and to prevent homelessness and hunger, Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service has programs in housing assistance, children and family development, workforce development, a food pantry, disaster recovery and more.

Poverty has many forms, Mahan said. "The end result is the same. It's isolation, depression. You disconnect with reality. There's an impact on the children. They lose their home, their church, their friends. They don't have a support system around them."

Long-term, sustainable solutions are needed, Mahan said, which often involve public policy changes with a tone of kindness and understanding. 

How to help

Financial contributions, material donations and volunteering are among the ways to assist Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service.

• Visit www.jacares.org

• Send contributions to Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, 4116 McClay Road, St. Charles, MO 63304

• Call (636) 441-1302

• Email info@jacares.org

Unrestricted donations provide flexibility to serve clients by addressing the greatest immediate needs.

Anyone with business income in Missouri receives a reduction in Missouri state taxes equal to 50 percent by making an eligible contribution through the Missouri Neighborhood Assistance Tax Credits Program to Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service. 

Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service also receive assistance from the Annual Catholic Appeal.

Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service
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