Halloween is the ideal time for an article about St. John Center housing client Derek because he is the proud owner of two black cats. Contrary to popular belief, Derek is convinced his furry friends, whom he named Mickey and Minnie, keep him safe.
“I learned that cats were considered the keepers of the dead in Egypt so I figured they wouldn’t let anything happen to me. They keep the boogie man away,” he explained.
According to Wright Gordon, Derek’s case manager at St. John Center, his client is predisposed to watch over others which is evident in the way he cares for his cats. “Derek never ceases to amaze me with his insight, truthfulness, and desire to take care of those he loves,” said Wright. “He is a proud pet owner of two cats which he rescued and treats like family.”
Derek’s quiet demeanor and compassion for animals may be somewhat surprising given his childhood. His father was murdered when Derek was 8, but he had already become a foster child by then.
Now 27, Derek’s formative years were spent in a series of foster homes and facilities for troubled youth. He alleges that he suffered physical abuse at the hands of the staff at one of the youth homes. “Some of the people there took techniques they were taught to restrain us when we were a danger to ourselves and/or others and used them to torture us until we did what they wanted us to do.”
By age 15, Derek had moved into Boys Haven where he eventually was moved into a HUD housing program at the facility. Derek moved into his current apartment in March 2009.
Derek admits to having difficulty trusting people, so the thing he likes most about having his own apartment is, “the privacy. I like to keep to myself.” However, he was quick to say that he would be quick to help a neighbor in need.
One of the few people to have earned Derek’s trust is Wright. “I would call Wright a friend and that is a word I don’t use often. We can confide things that I wouldn’t tell others. Wright and I trust each other. We respect each other,” said Derek.
For the past couple of months Derek has been assisting SJC plant manager Patrick DeVore in cleaning the Center a couple of days a week. “I’m grateful to have this job. I feel like I’m part of a team. I get to help people. I have other people I can rely on and that is something I’ve never known before.”
Derek graduated from a local high school and attended college with the idea of becoming a veterinary assistant. Although he doesn’t have the financial means right now, Derek would eventually like to return to complete his degree so he can work with the animals he loves.
Overall, Derek is pleased with his life. “I am satisfied with my life. I’m not greedy.”
Wright is confident that his client’s attitude will continue to help him thrive. “I appreciate his wit and unique sense of humor that catches you off guard, and leaves you laughing for hours,” Wright said. ”Derek is a survivor, a man who takes pride in not wishing for a better life, but making it happen!”
“I see myself in them. I see myself as a couple of bad breaks away from being homeless. I know what it is like to have your life fall apart. I know how to rebuild and how to grieve. That is part of what calls me to this work.”
Those are the words of Tom Parmenter, who became St. John Center’s newest staff member on August 31. His title is Housing Counselor and he works with the Center’s clients to help them qualify for housing and connect with any kind of resources they need.
Tom became familiar with SJC by being part of the Common Assessment Team from neighboring Phoenix Health Center. Since March 2014 he has spent some time each week interviewing St. John Center clients to help them qualify, and be placed on a waiting list, for permanent supportive housing.
“I had an opportunity once or twice a week to get a sense of the inner workings of St. John Center. I have a lot of respect for what they are doing,” Tom explained. “There is a real sense of integrity here. There is great respect for the dignity of every man here, and everyone is wedded to the purpose. This place does what it does, and does it very well. At St. John Center there is no discrepancy between the mission statement and what I see going on.”
A native of St. Joseph, MO, Tom holds a masters degree in counseling (psychological) from Ball State University. Previously he spent a lot of time working with juvenile justice in the child welfare system. Before that he served as the Director of Youth Ministry at a church.
Tom has one child, a 12-year-old daughter, from an earlier marriage. Last June he married a wonderful woman he met at church.
St. John Center appears to be a good fit for Tom, “This has always been my favorite shelter. The staff and volunteers have all made me feel very welcome,” he said. “It is an honor to witness the process of someone turning their life around.”
With the end of the 2014-2015 fiscal year on June 30, there were 72 formerly homeless men participating in St. John Center’s permanent supported housing program.
Once a client is placed in housing, he continues to receive case management which is the reason more than 90 percent of the Center’s housing clients maintain their housing for at least a year, besting the national average of 80 percent.
Eventually some SJC housing clients do so well that they no longer need the help of a case manager to weather the storms of life. At that point they qualify for what locally is called the Move Up program.
HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher Program pays a percentage of their rent. For lack of a better term, St. John Center views this as a “graduation” from its housing program. It is an accomplishment and something to be celebrated.
Perhaps a mortarboard and gown are in order for Michael who at age 64 began receiving Housing Choice Voucher funding last February.
In four short years Michael has gone from homeless, to housed, to having the ability to handle life’s everyday challenges on his own. And while Michael has certainly taken advantage of the opportunities he’s been given, he is quick to recognize the role St. John Center has played in his success.
“If not for St. John Center I probably wouldn’t have this place,” said Michael who keeps a supply of candy for visits from his grand kids. “The housing group meetings helped me learn how to live on my own again.”
SJC case manager Vickie Burks has been by Michael’s side throughout his journey. “Vickie has been good to me. She’s good people,” said Michael. “She made me grow up. I followed her advice. She told me what I needed to do. She has been helping me ever since.”
Vickie is happy to share in Michael’s success, but is proud to see how well he is doing on his own. “Michael has shown that he is very responsible in paying his bills on time and being in control of all other areas of his life,” Vickie explained. “This is why he was chosen to be a Move Up participant. We felt he was ready to move on without case management. He will be fine.”
Housing has been life changing for Michael who is now on disability due to his health. “I don’t have to depend on other people. It took a whole lot of burden off me,” Michael said.
A Louisville native, Michael has five sisters, three brothers, four grandchildren. “We are close. We get together just about every Sunday for church, and on special occasions and holidays,” he said.
Michael has this advice for anyone who finds themselves in a situation similar to his. “Check out St. John Center. Don’t give up. There is help out there.”
“Things were not going my way. I was going in the wrong direction. For a minute I gave up. I considered suicide.” Those were Frank’s thoughts during one of the darkest times of his life.
Just a few short years later the same man said, “I have been studying for three months to get my GED. I want to go to college to study graphic arts. I want to do something with my life. I don’t want to stay in my apartment all day. Nothing is going to come to me; I have to go get it.”
Frank’s decline was fueled by his abuse of alcohol at age 18. “Drinking was hurting my stomach. It cost me a job,” he said. Now 47, the Louisville native has been sober for more than a year.
One of six children raised by a single mother, Frank’s Mom was very important to him. When she died in 2003, Frank took it hard. “I was very close to my Mom. I cried like a baby when she died, but I have good memories of her,” he said.
It has been more than four years since St. John Center’s permanent supported housing program made it possible for Frank to move into his own apartment. Paulette Sublett is his case manager and she has been impressed with his progress.
“Frank has surpassed every goal he has set. Right now he is focused on getting a GED. He hasn’t missed a single class and is so excited. He flashes a huge smile when he talks about his classwork and homework,” said Paulette.
“Paulette is real nice and keeps me on my toes,” said Frank. “She got me going back to school. I can’t thank her enough for that.” Frank says he can already tell the difference in his reading ability. “I want to find a good job. I would love to work in the food industry,” he said.
Recently members of the SJC housing program were invited to participate in a series of six cooking classes with Chef Nancy Russman. Frank attended every session. He really enjoys cooking and has worked in the kitchens at an overnight emergency shelter and Churchill Downs.
“Frank has asked if he can attend additional St. John Center workshops because he loves the positive things happening in his life,” explained Paulette.
“St. John Center has helped me out a lot. If I didn’t have a case manager at St. John Center I don’t know where I’d be right now,” said Frank. “This place has been amazing and they’re still helping me.”
As if homelessness and alcoholism didn’t provide enough challenge, Frank decided to exorcise a third demon from his life when he stopped smoking seven months ago. “He is so excited and we are just as excited for him,” said Paulette.
Advocates for the homeless have recently re-energized the campaign to fully fund the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund (LAHTF). The LAHTF is a fund controlled by a local, private non-profit that makes money available – grants or loans – to housing developers to create new units of rental property for very low-income people, rehab existing or build new houses for working class families, provide services for case management, and provide funds for upkeep of current low-income homes.
The LAHTF was created in 2008 and has managed a little production of new houses using federal HOME funds dedicated by Metro Louisville. However, it will never get to scale until it has a dedicated funding stream.
The lack of enough affordable housing and case management support in Louisville is a big reason why St. John Center is so busy every day. A solution has been proposed. If Louisville increased the insurance premium tax rate by 1% or 63 cents a month (less than the cost of a 2 liter soft drink) that would support the creation of a $10.15 million revenue stream for affordable housing in our community.
St. John Center’s board of directors voted to endorse the funding of the LAHTF. Please voice your support of this solution to homelessness by contacting your Metro Council representative.