Podcast Episode: Dorothy Day House

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Dorothy Day House Memphis

Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all having a wonderful week this week. Welcome back to Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about some people who are changing the lives of homeless families—specifically I’m going to talk about the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis.

First, however, I’m going to give you a short history of the woman the organization is named for. Dorothy Day was an American journalist, social activist, and Catholic convert. She was born in New York in 1897 and was the 3rdchild to Grace and John Day. Her father was a sportswriter and moved his family to San Francisco in 1904 when he took a job with a newspaper there. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the paper’s facilities there, and he lost his job, but out of that tragedy, Dorothy saw acts of kindness by her mother and their neighbors who all stepped up to help others during this crisis in their city. Those self-sacrificing acts planted the seeds in Dorothy Day’s mind that would later lead her to help others in times of need.

Her passion for bringing change to what seemed like desperate situations led her to become part of a circle of social radicals and literary types like Eugene O’Neill during World War I. Eventually she faced jail time for her actions in 1917 when she and a group of suffragettes were demonstrating at the White House in favor of giving women voting rights.

Though Day’s parents were not deeply religiously, they did have some ties to Christianity. It’s said, though, that Day rejected religion because she did not see people who worshipped regularly doing anything to serve the people in need. Day eventually embraced the Catholic faith and admired the Catholic church for being “the Church of the poor.”  In 1926, Day gave birth to her daughter Tamar and faced life as a single mother as she worked as a freelance journalist. Her decision to have her daughter baptized and embrace the Catholic faith led to the end of her common law marriage and the loss of many of her radical friends.

In 1932, when she was covering the Hunger March in Washington, D.C., she prayed that some way would open up for her to serve the poor and unemployed. The next day she met Peter Maurin. They worked together to start the “Catholic Worker” newspaper which spawned a movement of houses of hospitality and farming communes that has since been replicated throughout the nation and in other countries.

You can read more about her life in a book by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy titled Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. Her life story is fascinating, and I’m just giving you a glimpse of all of the work she did for others during her lifetime. But know that she spent her entire life trying to make a difference in this world—trying to help bring hope to others.

That’s what the Dorothy Day House in Memphis does today. The mission of the Dorothy Day House is to keep homeless families together as they are struggling to try to get back on their feet and regain some hope financially.

We know that people can become homeless for many reasons: lost jobs or under-employment, overwhelming medical bills or other unplanned for expenses, or generational poverty. Being homeless is traumatic for everyone involved. Adding to the stress of the situation, however, is the design of many typical shelters. When families are trying to get out of the heat or cold and find a safe place to rest, they often have to separate. Many shelters only allow one gender to be housed on site, so fathers have to leave daughters and wives; mothers have to leave sons and husbands. This separation means that they aren’t together to try to work through possible solutions to their financial challenges.

The Dorothy Day house steps in whenever possible and offers a safe place for families to live together so they can stay strong as a family unit and support each other as they work to move forward and overcome the obstacles hindering them because of their poverty.

So, what does this living situation look like? The parents and children now have a home-like atmosphere—they have a sense of security—and in this place, they all have responsibilities such as helping to clean the house and prepare meals. The organization has two houses, serving three families in each house.

Their second house opened in May 2018 and is named in memory of Loretta Garland, a woman who lived in the Dorothy Day House with her teenage son. They became homeless because the factory Loretta worked in for 20 years closed with no warning. While at the house, Loretta got a new job at FedEx and was just about to move out when she died suddenly of a stroke on April 15, 2013.

The families at the Dorothy Day House are very diverse. The organization serves families of different sizes, ages, religions, and ethnicities. As I mentioned earlier, many things can cause sudden homelessness: a house fire, the death or sudden absence of the main wage earner, the expense of medical bills, a car accident or other unexpected circumstances.

Today, almost half of American families live paycheck to paycheck. Any setback can cause serious financial challenges with long-term effects. We also have to understand the effects of generational poverty. Many parents don’t have the emotional, mental or physical tools needed to make changes for their families and pull themselves out of poverty. Dorothy Day understood this in her time. Many people don’t have support systems in place to help move them out of a crisis situation and into a stable living situation. Dorothy Day reminded us that we were called to love others. She said, though, that we had to get over our fear of others in order to get close enough to love them.

The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality is loving families and bringing them hope. The organization is funded by private donations from individuals. Donors give annually, as needed for projects, or on a monthly-basis. Each gift, of any amount, is important to the sustainability of the ministry. The Dorothy Day House depends entirely on monetary and in-kind donations from private donors and charitable organizations. We receive no federal, state, or local assistance.

Their website—dorothydaymemphis.org—lists the specific needs they have at any particular time. Sometimes they need diapers if they are serving families with infants; sometimes they need shoes of a specific size or maybe clothes or furniture. Their Facebook page also keeps donors updated on specific needs. And of course, cash is always appreciated.

When I was in interim children’s director at a local church, I was filling in over a summer and decided to use some of our monetary donations from our VBS program to support the home. I met Sister Maureen Griner who is the Executive Director and part of their ministry team to families. I was able to hear more of the stories of the hope that this organization brings to our community. It’s truly an inspiring organization with volunteers who mentor the kids and cook meals and step in to help deep clean at times.

Here are a few of the ways the Dorothy Day house staff, volunteers and support agencies in the community serve the families in their care—they provide:

  • Food, clothing, and shelter
  • Educational resources and guidance
  • Parenting skills
  • Employment counseling
  • Prospective job contacts
  • Transportation
  • Referrals for child care
  • Financial and budgeting advice
  • Counseling and case management services
  • Advocacy and mentoring
  • Access to sources of permanent housing
  • New personal relationships which provide a system of healthy support and encouragement for the future.

The first family moved into the Dorothy Day house is 2006. This ministry is still expanding.

Here’s your challenge for the week: look around your community and find organizations that have a similar mission. See if you can locate groups working to keep homeless family members together. Help get their story out in your community—share their social media posts or show up at events that are fundraisers for that organization.

Fighting homelessness takes a team effort, but we can help bring hope and change to families trying to overcome poverty. A safe home makes a difference.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of my Look to See Me podcast and will return for the next episode.

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