By MegAnne Liebsch
June 15, 2020 — Mornings at Pope Francis Center start just after 6 a.m. The skeleton crew of workers line up to have their temperature checked, then they change into work clothes that are laundered on site every day. Finally, they don gloves and masks and get to work preparing for the 7 a.m. breakfast. Each day Pope Francis Center (PFC) serves over 200 people experiencing homelessness in the Detroit area, providing daily meals, health and hygiene services and hospitality.
Usually, PFC relies on hundreds of volunteers to run its daily meals and community services. But, like many Jesuit ministries, PFC suspended its volunteer programs due to safety concerns. To keep it running, several Jesuits have moved to Detroit to help PFC staff provide crucial services to a growing number of guests amid COVID-19.
“All of the ways that these folks would normally provide for themselves have dried up,” says Jake Braithwaite, SJ, who came to volunteer at PFC during the height of the pandemic. “The numbers [of guests] have just skyrocketed. People are really hungry.”
In 2018, Michigan’s Campaign to End Homelessness found that over 65,000 people in the state experienced homelessness that year, and over a quarter of them lived in Detroit. Before the pandemic, PFC served about 275-325 meals a day. By early April that number exploded to over 450 meals a day, reaching 570 meals one day, says floor manager Harrison Plaskey.
“People who were maybe on the edge before, like Uber drivers and waiters, they are people in our line that weren’t there before,” says volunteer Br. Matt Wooters, SJ. While the stimulus bill has helped level out those numbers, PFC still serves over 350 meals a day.
Every day, PFC offers breakfast and lunch. To promote social distancing, food is served by one volunteer through the Center’s side doors. Then, guests are encouraged to eat their meals in the large white tents erected across the street, where chairs are spaced six feet apart. Guests can also access portable showers, and on Friday mornings, a local doctor provides health services. PFC is also working with a local laundry service, so guests can have their clothes cleaned at no cost.
According to Josh Hinchie, SJ, the pandemic has forced the regular staff at PFC into overdrive. Hinchie, who is studying at Loyola University Chicago, was originally planning to teach English and philosophy in Vietnam this summer, but with the virus, those plans fell through. Instead, he answered PFC’s call for emergency volunteers — along with Braithwaite, and Wooters, who will work at PFC until August.
“The real story of what’s happening to Pope Francis Center is that their skeleton crew that runs the place has just been doing the work of a dozen men each,” Braithwaite says. Plaskey comes in on his days off. Jesuit Volunteer John Fitzgerald shows up every day, making the coffee without fail. Br. Denis Weber, SJ, wakes up at 3 a.m. to make sure breakfast is ready. Weber used to rely on an “army” of volunteers to prepare every meal, but now he and one other staff member are responsible for preparing over 350 meals a day.
While PFC’s staff has worked tirelessly to continue its services and ensure the health of the community, the realities of quarantine prevent PFC guests from accessing other essential supports, such as mental health care. People who are unhoused are more likely to struggle with chronic health conditions, as well as mental health concerns. A troubling 78 percent of unsheltered people struggle with mental illness.
“A lot of folks were working really hard on mental health,” says Braithwaite. “The lack of social support that they have at this time means that a lot of that has deteriorated. We’ve seen a lot of mental health issues, a lot of relapse, and it’s hard.”
At its core, the pandemic isolates people experiencing homelessness. Many of PFC’s guests are unable to work, receive health services or even sleep. At PFC, meals and clothes are handed out by a single volunteer to minimize transmission risk, which decreases “the level of personal interaction that we would like with our guests,” says Hinchie.
Still, the PFC community is full of hope. “Even when I forget to, [the guests] are constantly bringing it back to Christ and to the way that God works in their life,” says Braithwaite. “And they show a lot of resiliency at a time when again they’ve just kind of been abandoned on the streets and they face a lot.”
For many, PFC’s ongoing work has been a source of hope, too. “We’re seeing this amazing generosity,” Executive Director Fr. Tim McCabe, SJ, told Facebook followers. Their recent fundraising campaign has raised $635,000, which will ensure that meals, handwashing stations, showers and hospitality are still available to the community.
On top of donations, Wooters says small acts of kindness from the community are “really, really beautiful.” Every meal at PFC is served with utensils rolled in napkins — a small detail that takes a significant amount of time to prepare each day. When Wooters texted a few friends about this tedious task, they leaped into action. “In two days, I had a thousand rolled forks,” Wooters says.
This community support is a poignant reminder of the human connections, the solidarity that binds us, even in isolation. And if you’re looking for a way to express that solidarity with vulnerable communities, Hinchie says, “Start with prayer and then work out.”
For Br. Wooters, an unlikely prayer has brought him solace and hope. “‘Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive…’ I pray that every morning before I open the door to the Pope Francis Center,” he says. “[I’m] asking for God’s blessing, but also knowing that the homeless folks who are coming to us are gifts we are about to receive from God.”
To donate to Jesuit social ministries amid COVID-19, go to www.jesuits.org/donate2020.
MegAnne Liebsch is the communications associate for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology.