At Pontiac homeless shelter, volunteers ‘see the face of God’

Don Greenles, a volunteer from St. Mary Parish in Milford, hands a guest a plate of food Dec. 4 at Hope Warming Center in Pontiac, a “low-barrier” shelter where those in need can find dinner, a warm bed and fresh socks seven nights a week.
Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

PONTIAC — Heaven is not won simply by “being a good person,” Pope Francis reminded the world last month during the first-ever World Day of the Poor.

“To do no wrong is not enough,” the pope said Nov. 19, addressing 7,000 people gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica. “God is not an inspector looking for unstamped tickets; He is a Father looking for children to whom he can entrust His property and His plans.”

Especially during the Advent season, God’s “property and plans” are those whom the world often forsakes: the poor and the lonely.

On the heels of the beatification of Blessed Solanus Casey, known for his tireless service to the forgotten, Catholics across Metro Detroit have plenty of chances to continue God’s work.

The need for volunteers at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, thrift stores and outreach programs is constant, with myriad opportunities to put faith into practice.

“I think (Advent) is a constant reminder that there are people in need,” said Val Thompson, Christian service coordinator at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Milford, who leads a small monthly group that prepares and serves food at Hope Warming Center in Pontiac.

“One of the reasons we go year-round is that the need isn’t just at Christmas. Just because it’s not cold outside doesn’t mean they’re not still homeless. They still need to eat. It’s just brought more to the forefront in the media and everywhere that this is the time of year you need to give and reach out to others,” Thompson said.

Still, Advent isn’t a bad time to start volunteering — and once you do, you’re likely to be hooked, Thompson adds.

“We get a lot of new volunteers at Christmas, which is great, because many of those volunteers become regulars,” Thompson said.

Hope Warming Center employs 29 people, but still relies on the services of approximately 1,800 volunteers per year, said Elizabeth Kelly, Hope’s founder.

“Volunteers are important not only because it’s budget-relieving for us and allows us to operate year-round and provide more services, but it also connects the guests we serve with the community,” said Kelly, a parishioner and member of the music ministry at St. John Fisher Chapel University Parish in Auburn Hills. “It makes them feel a part of the community, rather than apart from the community.”

Hope is the only year-round, “low-barrier” homeless shelter in Oakland County, Kelly said, housing 62 men and women each night. Those who come are offered a hot meal, showers, fresh socks and underwear and personal hygiene products, but the most important gift, Thompson said, is love.

“One of the most common things a lot of the guests tell us is, ‘Thank you for treating us like normal human beings,’” Thompson said. “I always say, ‘I would never dream of treating you any other way,’ but they don’t get treated that way a lot.”

Val Thompson, Christian service coordinator for St. Mary Parish in Milford, right, helps Peggy Cottington, a volunteer from the parish, refill the cheese bowl during a Mexican-themed dinner at Hope Warming Center in Pontiac on Dec. 4.
Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

Interacting with those in need dispels a lot of the misconceptions and stigmas attached to homelessness, Thompson said. Many of the guests at Hope have minimum-wage jobs, but “in this economy you can’t survive on minimum wage,” Thompson said. “You can pay for a car, but you can’t pay rent.”

Far from nameless, faceless “poor people,” those who come to Hope are real men and women who are down on their luck, but still made in the image and likeness of God.

“A lot of these guys made mistakes, and they get that, and they’ve paid for them,” Thompson said. “But just because they screwed up doesn’t mean they have to have anyone beat them over the head about it. And it doesn’t mean they have to be paying for these mistakes for the rest of their lives. Most of them just need a break.”

While volunteers are most needed to cook and serve meals, there are limitless ways to help, from organizing donations to singing Christmas carols or hosting a game night, Kelly said.

“It could also be literacy, volunteers coming in to work with some of our guests on their reading skills,” Kelly said. “We have people who are part of AA who work with our guests who are working on their sobriety.”

Even if a person isn’t able to do physical work, sometimes just interacting with those who don’t get much human interaction makes a world of difference.

“A lot of times once they’re in the shelter and their basic needs are being met, they’re able to start paying attention to changes they want to make in their lives and move forward,” Kelly said.

Kelly, who was part of the 300-voice choir that sang at Blessed Solanus Casey’s beatification Mass last month, cites the humble porter as “one of my personal heroes” for his tireless service to the poor — with a special emphasis on “tireless.”

“It’s overwhelming because the door never closes. You think you get 10 people out into housing, and 20 more people take their place,” Kelly said. “But Blessed Solanus was very good about putting things like that into perspective. One of the things he said was, ‘Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, pray for powers equal to your tasks.’

“I think that, for me, is a real perspective adjuster. When I think about it that way, it seems doable,” Kelly continued. “You don’t have to do everything yourself. You have the ability to let go, let God, and to do what you need to do without having those extra worries in there.”

Part of letting God is relying on volunteers like Thompson and her group from St. Mary’s, who wouldn’t trade the experience of helping others for the world — even on holidays such as Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

A shelter volunteer welcomes a guest into Hope Warming Center in Pontiac on a cold winter day.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Kelly

“It doesn’t matter how tired I am, when I walk through those shelter doors, I have just this incredible burst of energy, a rejuvenation,” Thompson said. “Everyone is so gracious, so kind, so grateful for everything. I’ve never met more kind, caring and generous people in my life than in that homeless shelter.

“Volunteering allows me to live my Christian calling, my baptismal calling,” Thompson added. “It allows me to see the face of God.”

Volunteer at Hope Warming Center

Hope Warming Center provides food, showers, beds and clean clothes for 62 men and women per night, along with services provided by doctors, nurses, dentists, counselors and housing advisers. While volunteers are most needed to prepare and serve meals, anyone with the will to help is urged to visit hopewarmingpontiac.org or call (248) 499-7345.