The power of a name. That sense of recognition and belonging. During a global pandemic, to hear one’s name called out has shown even more power; it creates a connection that has been so hard for people to find. “I look him in the eye, I know his name, and it opens the door to helping him in that moment,” shares Sam Stoltz, a social worker and licensed alcohol and drug counselor who runs Higher Ground Emergency Shelter in Saint Paul.
Higher Ground Emergency Shelter is a nightly home to nearly 200 men who would otherwise be unsheltered outside in life-threatening freezing cold without the hard work, care and commitment of Sam and her team. COVID-19 has changed many of the ways Sam can support the guests at Higher Ground; some changes are expected–like people being spaced further apart at meals–and some changes have been surprising. “I’m coming to realize that so much of my engagement is touching people on the arm or back, letting them know, ‘I see you, I’m near you, I’m here for you.’ It’s a really good way to check in with people, and I can’t give it to them because I need to keep them safe and me safe… I can’t wait to do my job again in a way that there aren’t so many barriers between me and the guests.”
One of Sam’s shelter guests is Mario*, who came to Higher Ground “seeking some form of stability…it was about a place to heal, a place to feel safe.” Mario’s experience mirrors many of those at Higher Ground right now: he was barely making ends meet when he got sick and didn’t have insurance. COVID hit, causing him to lose his part-time job. Fast forward, and Mario came to Higher Ground last spring.
Leading an emergency shelter was demanding already; “we were operating in crisis before COVID” as a result of the rapid increase in homelessness,” Sam shared. “Now we’re functioning in crisis on top of a pandemic.”
The need for more support for emergency shelters has never been clearer. As people struggle through the risks and restraints of COVID-19, their physical and emotional health suffers, and their need for housing, economic stability, and safety becomes even greater. Sam and her team work hard to help provide Higher Ground guests with a sense of calm, to help them feel seen and welcomed, and to engage with each person on a name-to-name basis. They provide a roof, a hot shower, and a warm welcome. And while this helps in the moment, Sam knows it’s not enough.
It’s too early to tell just how many people will experience homelessness due to the pandemic, but we do know that one in four Minnesota households were paying more than they could afford for housing when we entered 2020, and nearly 8,000 people experienced homelessness every single night in Minnesota.
At Catholic Charities, part of our mission is to advocate for those whom we serve – to give voice to Sam’s shelter guests and clients across our programs who are otherwise not seen. Through key Catholic Social Teaching principles, we are driven to advocate for a quality of life that results from a vital economy, social justice, and inclusion; these principles tell us that breaking cyclical injustices is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
We are joined by more than 5,000 people from faith, civic and business groups who believe that everyone has the right to be seen, heard and cared for with dignity.
Our advocacy is led by the experiences of our clients, and it is augmented by data and research that come together to illustrate striking inequities in our region. Through our advocacy, we connect with local and state lawmakers, leveraging public and private partnerships and engaging parishes and community groups all with the goal of advancing the common good and caring for the most vulnerable among us.
Another guest at Higher Ground, Anthony*, shared his thoughts on the value of advocacy at Catholic Charities. “People think of public policy as a cry for help,” he said. “The human condition is the cry for help; public policy is the bridge between that cry and human dignity.” Anthony shared his memory of vacating his home, about the idea of “securing an empty place and the impact it had on my life, and knowing I was moving into a place of insecurity.” Thankfully, Anthony and Catholic Charities found each other. “Do not give up,” shared Anthony. “Do not lose hope; look for the prospect of a bright future.”
Advocacy takes many different forms at Catholic Charities. Sometimes we’re at the Capitol fighting for the rights and dignity of our guests, and other times it’s Sam greeting them by name, giving them a pat on the back and saying hello. We will continue to advocate until that is the reality for all we serve.
Our advocacy drives us to fight for Sam, Mario, Anthony, and the deep needs at Higher Ground Emergency Shelter to ensure everyone is able to work towards achieving housing stability. Emergency Services have never been more vital to our region, as COVID-19 worsens the challenge of a dark and cold winter. “Everybody is everyone’s someone at some point,” Sam shared. “Our community can’t forget about the people who are in shelter or the people sleeping outside; every person is so important to someone else …we need help to get them to where they need to go.”