Restoring Dignity to the Homeless

A major gift from UAW-Ford transformed the Pope Francis Center in 2013. Today, it’s serving more homeless people than ever before.

How can people without a home find dignity in the midst of their struggles?

At the Pope Francis Center, it starts with a warm shower, clean clothing and sitting down for a hot meal.

The warming center at 438 St. Antoine St. in Detroit is now in its 25th year and serving more homeless people than at any other time in its history.

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“We provide food, showers, laundry, medical and dental clinics, legal clinics and a host of resources to help people transition out of homelessness,” says Rev. Timothy McCabe, executive director of the Pope Francis Center, which is open 7-11 a.m. Monday-Saturday year-round.

In addition to daily services, special programs such as Christmas brunch and a backpack giveaway are also offered.

But the center didn’t always have the resources it has now to help meet its goals.

“We were a pretty small operation for the first 23 years. We had maybe one broken down washer/dryer and a little shower,” McCabe explains. “We were mostly serving day-old doughnuts and day-old Little Caesars pizza.”

A major donation from UAW-Ford changed all that.

“Bill Dirksen and Jimmy Settles came for a visit and they were so impressed with what we were doing that they saw to it that we got a major gift from them to help renovate the space,” he says. “Now we have a commercial kitchen, we have four washer/dryer units, four bathrooms, three showers, a TV room. That completely changed the way in which we were able to serve the people who are homeless who are coming to us.”

The impact, he says, was significant. That’s especially important now, as the center serves more and more people each month. The Pope Francis Center previously served about 60 people per day and now sees up to 180 to 200 individuals daily.

“The numbers began to increase pretty dramatically in the last three years,” he says. “We broke 200 people for the first time twice (in a recent) week.”

While more people are becoming aware of the center’s services, it’s also due to more men and women facing homelessness in the Detroit area.

“The revitalization of downtown has impacted the homeless population. Some of the buildings that are being repurposed, people were living in,” McCabe says.

Another opportunity arose as the homeless population grew: an opportunity to serve healthier food.

“What I was noticing is we were serving doughnuts, pastries and foods that were not necessarily nutrient-dense,” McCabe says. “For so many people on the streets, diabetes is an issue.”

So the center went back to UAW-Ford to explain the need for a nutrition program, where homeless people being served at the center could receive more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“They jumped on it and they gave us another very significant gift,” he says. “We were able to buy a van to pick up food to purchase and then hire a nutrition coordinator that helps to buy and prepare meals. Now we do two meals a day; a 7 a.m. continental breakfast and then a 9 a.m. hot meal with salads and fruits and vegetables.”

The support from UAW-Ford has been life-changing for people trying to find their way out of homelessness in Detroit.

“They’re just phenomenal,” McCabe says. “They’ve really made a difference in terms of the impact for people no one else is caring for. They’ve given us the capacity within our own building to really serve people. They really changed the whole direction of our capacity to serve.”

That commitment to the community is part of the Ford way, he notes.

“Ford and UAW are people who really are part of the community. They invest in the community,” he says. “It’s that Ford culture of being a family and really seeing ourselves as a community and taking care of one another.”

The services provided at the Pope Francis Center – from nutritious foods to medical clinics and a place to shower and do laundry – are all part of “washing the stigma” off homelessness.

“You’re not going to get a job, you’re not going to get a house if you’re dirty and you smell,” McCabe says. “That’s part of restoring their dignity as human beings and then helping them, for those who are able to transition out of homelessness.”

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