By Dick Kaukas
Paulette Sublett, new case manager at St. John Center for Homeless Men, has written two ideas that are important to her on the board over the desk in her office.
One is a tribute to the 200 or so people who donate their time to the center: “Volunteers get paid in moments … warm, fuzzy moments,” which, indeed, is part of the reason people come to St. John and help the men every day.
Paulette is just as deeply committed. Her goal is to assist more of St. John’s clients to get off the streets and out of the shelters, and to live successfully in homes of their own.
It is a daunting task but she is good at it and brings a unique combination of training and experience to the job. After learning St. John Center had an opening, she applied, interviewed, was hired, and went to work on Oct. 6.
In a way, it is something she always has wanted to do. Paulette grew up in Louisville, graduating from Fairdale High where she was a cheerleader.
Paulette Sublett, case manager
As a child, she went through some difficult stretches, living with relatives, and enduring instability and changes that most other kids don’t experience.
“It was kind of a rough childhood,” she said, “and at first it made me angry because I thought it was unfair. I kept asking God, why me? And I feel like God answered by telling me my experiences humbled me and gave me the insight of empathy for the ones I serve. So I feel it is my divine purpose to help others. That’s why I’m here and that’s what I’m doing.”
The difficult days she went through as a kid, Paulette said, “made me a stronger person,” and gave her a unique appreciation for the problems faced by the homeless, a perspective that makes it easy for her to put herself in her clients’ shoes.
Paulette has an associate’s degree from Jefferson Community College and a bachelor’s in social sciences from Indiana University Southeast. She also studied at Spalding University on a Master’s in Social Work.
She has worked at Community Coordinated Child Care and Home of the Innocents, where she still is involved part time — “I fell in love with the place and the work they do,” she said.
Immediately before she came to St; John, she worked six years in a Louisville YMCA transitional housing program, training homeless men to become self-sufficient.
That experience, she said, has smoothed the shift to her job at St. John where she and other case workers help about 100 men develop and maintain the skills they need to live and stay in places of their own.
“There is so much positive energy here,” she said of the Center. “There is so much light here.”
The second idea she has written over her desk reflects her convictions about what can be learned from and the value of hard times: “Life is like photography. We need the negatives to develop.”
In honor of Veterans Day, the November issue of Daylight, St. John Center’s monthly eNewsletter, includes an article about a homeless veteran. Meet Don.
Now 66, Don was just 21 years old when he became one of hundreds of thousands of young Americans summoned by Uncle Sam to go to battle in Vietnam. He served in the Army from February 1969 to September 1970.
His job was to get trucks filled with supplies, equipment and personnel from point A to point B. There were regular reminders that he was in a combat zone. “We came under fire from rockets, mortars and small arms,” Don recalled. “I did my time and got out. I didn’t get a hero’s welcome, but then again, I didn’t expect one.”
He married in 1976 and became the father of two children. Life was pretty ordinary until his divorce. Now his kids are grown and he has three grandchildren, but Don really doesn’t have a relationship with any of them. “I wanted to get away from my wife, but I didn’t want to lose my kids,” he said.
Don has never had a problem with drugs or alcohol. He hasn’t had a drink in 16 years. He is not mentally ill. What led him to the streets? “I was fed up, disgusted. I walked out,” he said. “I just wanted to disappear and get off the grid.”
Asking for, or accepting, help is not something that comes easily for Don. Although he was a veteran, he didn’t seek assistance from the Veterans Administration. He didn’t apply for food stamps. He even turned his back on a government pension after putting in 32 years with the United States Postal Service.
He wanted to survive on his own. “I don’t know if it is just that I don’t like to ask for help, or if I don’t believe I deserve help. I guess it’s a little of both,” said Don. “A man should take responsibility for making his own way in the world.”
“I’ve panhandled. Louisville is a generous town,” explained Don. “The only time I came inside was during White Flag. The rest of the time I slept outside under overpasses, on loading docks, in alleys, on benches, or on the tiers at Waterfront Park.”
Don first came to St. John Center on February 11, 2013. The shelter has become very important to him. “It gave me what I needed. The best part of my day was walking to St. John’s because I knew I was going to a quiet, stable place where I could take a shower, get a cup of coffee, work a crossword puzzle,” he said.
“If you have not experienced homelessness you don’t know the value of a place like St. John Center. The case workers, the volunteers, they don’t move away from you like people do in public. If I didn’t have St. John Center I probably would have gone nuts.”
Don first met Libbie Gonce, a VA counselor, at SJC. “She asked me if I would let her help me,” he said. “I didn’t really think there was much she could do for me, but I decided to let her try.” Turns out that was one of Don’s best decisions. With Libbie’s help, he is checking out apartments and trying to decide which one will be his next home, most likely before Christmas. He is also working on reinstating his USPS pension.
After four years without any identification, Don is celebrating his state and VA IDs. “I’m officially a person again,” he said.
“I’ve learned to separate my wants from my needs. I don’t need much,” Don said. “I’ve had a lot, and I’ve had very little, and I’m pretty much the same person regardless.”