House of Hope

Fewer homeless without more beds.

You could call her a miracle worker, but she’d probably laugh out loud.

Sister Connie Driscoll single-handedly reduced the number of homeless in the city of Chicago by two thirds, and she did it without adding a single bed. No miracles were required; the Roman Catholic nun accomplished this feat by the simple expedient of creating a more efficient reporting system.

What Driscoll actually reduced was the city’s numbers of reported “turnaways,” those who aren’t admitted to shelters because no beds are available. Under the old system, if a woman med to get lodging at two shelters and was turned away, but was admitted at a third, she was still counted twice as a turnaway.

“In September of 1988, we showed 6,000 women and children turned away from shelters,” Driscoll recalls. “And when that figure got that high, I said, ‘C’mon. Enough is enough. Let’s find out how many of those are duplications.’ ” So she developed reporting sheets that give the date, the initials of the women, their dates of birth, and the number of children they have; every shelter fills the sheets out and turns them in regularly. They also send in lists that show who’s currently in each shelter. By September 19891, the turnaways were down to 2,120.

There are solutions to the problems of the homeless, solutions that don’t require the intervention of government, private solutions that work. Sister Connie Driscoll, and Sister Therese O’Sullivan of the St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood have been proving it every day for almost eight years. They base their work on the principle of individual responsibility.

Driscoll and O’Sullivan founded their shelter for homeless women and children in 1983 on tough-love principles. If you want to stay here, you have to keep your area clean. You have to sign up for and perform chores. You have to take care of your children. You have to take classes, both GED classes and classes in “life skills.” Many women, says Driscoll, don’t know how to do laundry or go shopping. You have to save 70 percent of your public aid checks, so you have a stake when you leave.

It works. In the last seven years, over 6,000 women have passed through the doors of St. Martin de Porres. Driscoll claims that only 6.5 percent of her charges have returned to the shelter system; for the Chicago system as a whole, 38.9 percent will return to a shelter. The 140-bed shelter runs on a $240,000-a-year budget. To remain independent, Driscoll takes no money from any branch of government or even from the church. The nuns run a separate facility for pregnant and parenting teens on the same principles.

The money for all this comes from individuals (the nuns take no salary), from private foundations, and from Driscoll’s speaking engagements. The staff of 10 (five of them ex-residents) is loyal, despite low wages. “If you want to make a lot of money, obviously you’re not going to come to work for me,” observes Driscoll.

Driscoll, a Missionary Sister of the Poor, doesn’t match most people’s mental image of a typical nun. She is outspoken. The black patch over her left eye and the long brown cigarettes she smokes give her a faintly piratical air. The remaining bright blue eye gleams with intelligence, humor, and, when she gets going, fire. A one-time lawyer, she decided she didn’t care for the law a long time ago. She became a nun in 1982; several years ago, she and O’Sullivan adopted a baby girl. She’s also a statistics freak—she’s been tracking the women who stay at St. Martin via computer since opening the shelter and now keeps the figures for the entire city of Chicago. The numbers are all on the tip of her tongue.

One number she declines to give is the number of homeless in Chicago: “There are so many variables.” For instance, in Cook County, prisoners can’t be required to sleep on cots in jail-but they can sleep on cots in homeless shelters; court-ordered releases swell the numbers of male homeless on a regular but artificial basis. Runaways, prostitutes, drug and alcohol abusers, battered women, and those who are just between apartments for a few days are all included in the official count of the homeless population.

The average length of a stay at her shelter is 76 days, but, notes Driscoll, that figure tells only a partial story; stays vary by season and by group. The most difficult to help are the long-term homeless, frequently women who were pregnant for the first time at the age of 15, who may now have several children, substance abuse problems, and next to no education. “They are now third-generation welfare recipients and have not really set any goals, or patterns in their life. They stay here much longer than the others.”

But they can be helped—and often are. “We have lots of success stories,” declares Driscoll. “Many of them still live in the community. Many of them are employed. They’re living in their own homes and have been stabilized for years. Many of them are off welfare and doing extremely well. I don’t think a day has gone by in over six years that ex-residents have not checked in with Sister Therese, just to say, ‘Hi, how ya doin’?’ ”

Juanita Green is a two-time success story. The 35-year-old daughter of a black middle-class family, she had a degree in accounting and a responsible position with a major Chicago hospital, along with a house, a car, and a family. Then she got into freebasing cocaine.

Fired from her job, she found others easily enough but couldn’t keep them. After three years in a downward spiral, she got into a detox program and then into St. Martin de Porres. Driscoll recently hired her as an outreach worker, to help former residents maintain their apartment s and budget their money. Green and her two daughters-a toddler and an infant—will live at the shelter, though: “It keeps me out of temptation.”

“Sister Connie is about helping women and doing it on an individual basis,” says Patricia Carr, who also knows from firsthand experience. She moved to Chicago from Peoria, had no place to go, and found herself at St. Martin. She stayed for six months. For almost three years, she’s been the secretary for the local Roman Catholic parochial school, handling all the money that comes in.

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