Why Do I Work With a Homeless Shelter…

. 3 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Why Do I Work With a Homeless Shelter…

...When I Have a Congenital Heart Defect?

Sometimes people ask me what I do to support congenital heart disease patients like myself. The answer: not much. I have donated a few times to the Adult Congenital Heart Association, which does wonderful work supporting, educating and advocating for CHD patients and families. That said, the cause I support the most – ensuring every person has a safe, secure home – has an intimate link with my health condition because it is inextricably bonded with every other struggle a person can face.

St John Center is a services hub for our homeless neighbors in Louisville, Kentucky. St. John Center helps guests find and apply for housing, prepare for living again off the streets, get a job, receive mail, and seek other services they require.

St. John Center – and many homeless organizations around the country – operate with a “Housing First” posture. That means obtaining housing first provides stability to guests. They can then address their other battles in life. Those challenges often include: finding a job, mental difficulties, acute and chronic medical problems, and many other troubles.

In late 2012, my wife and I decided to move to Louisville. A return home, for me. As I sought out a charity to support, the concept of home struck me in a poignant way. I had chosen to return home – my first home. In that decision, memories of my first life in Louisville returned to the fore. I thought of my family – my Mom, my Dad, and my brother. (And our dog, Prowl.) I recalled my open-heart surgery, and the work of recovery and continuation.

Home. That notion would not leave me. How a stable home enabled me to recover from surgery and thrive with my heart condition. How a warm bed comforted me so many nights. How home allowed me – a boy who couldn’t play competitive sports – to explore my first hobby, Amateur Radio. How a loving family at home had permitted me to perform well in school. Home had ultimately made it safe for me to leave home, and to find my own way.

My thoughts roiled with questions about men and women and children without a home. How can someone survive without a home? What happens in life without a loving family in that home? What if your home had to move with you, like some strange snail? How would you face your woes without the reliability of a home? How would those trials evolve without the sanctuary of a home?

One frightful question kept pounding my head: how would I have done without my home?

I didn’t know the specifics of the answer. I intuited the terrible contours. It doesn’t seem too dramatic to state I wouldn’t be who I am without my home. Almost assuredly, I would live worse off physically, mentally and emotionally. Maybe spiritually and morally too. I would not be me.

(Here, I am pondering questions about myself. I do not suggest that homelessness makes a person less spiritually whole or less ethical. Viktor Frankl writes of life in the Nazi concentration camps, “we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”1)

These musings revealed home as urgently linked with my heart condition. And they showed home as intimately joined with every person’s attempt to overcome obstacles. So I became convinced of the power of the work of St. John Center, in my new-old home, to help people experiencing homelessness move forward and move home. It sure seemed worthwhile to begin to lend a hand.

From this thought journey, I took away a lesson about contribution. If we suffer from a particular malady, should we feel compelled to advance the alleviation of that illness? I don’t think so. Of course, if you feel drawn – or called – to help with a challenge you have or a community you feel akin to, do it. If you served in the armed forces and desire to contribute to veterans organizations, by all means, do it.

Don’t feel compelled, though. The world will gain, however you desire to make your mark. Benjamin Franklin, a Deist, nonetheless gave money to assist in the building of “new Places of worship” in Philadelphia, “whatever might be the Sect,” whenever asked.2 He gave because he wanted a thriving city – his home – and firmly founded churches would advance that aim. He knew the interconnectedness of many, seemingly disparate things. They were profoundly related. One could simply not exist without the other.

  1. Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston; Beacon Press, 2014. p. 125.

  2. Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: Writings. New York; The Library of America, 1987. p. 1382-3.


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