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Written by Robert Donovan, SM, February 2008

About 18 years ago, my life took a sharp turn. I was in my fourth year of medical practice in an office that I enjoyed very much. I was on the Executive Committee of the multi-specialty group I was a part of and very involved in other medical groups both in and beyond Cincinnati.

I wasn’t really at all unsettled or feeling that this was not right for me because I didn’t like it. However, I did feel a constant nudge in prayer that there was something else I was being called to. I felt I wanted to be part of a concern that helped people with lesser access to health care.

Additionally, I also was feeling again the call to religious life. In the past I had investigated several medical religious orders without feeling that they were right for me. So I went to the Archdiocesan vocation director and asked if he had any ideas. He told me I should look at the Marianists.

Despite living in Cincinnati all my life, I knew nothing of the Marianists, except by the names of the schools they worked at (I went to the Jesuit high school, of all things!). So I was introduced to Bro. Bob Wiethorn. My subsequent gatherings with the Terrace Ave. Community and other Marianists convinced me that this was a way I should go. After spending many months in Aspirancy, I gave notice to my medical practice and went to Dayton for Novitiate. Both there and in Cleveland, where I did my second year of Novitiate, I worked part-time providing medical care for low income people.

Near the end of my Novitiate I needed to come up with a ministry. I made contact in several cities. From one of the contacts I had in Cincinnati from my previous work there, I found that the Coalition for the Homeless had gotten a grant to develop a program to bring health care to homeless people. They were looking for a family doctor. I interviewed for the job and moved back to the Terrace Ave. Community and took the job.

I spent the next 14 years working for the Cincinnati Health Department on the mobile medical van which went to several of the shelters in the city, providing acute and chronic medical care to homeless people.

Soon after beginning to work for the program, several of the Brothers began a process of developing a plan to form a community in a low income neighborhood. Eventually this became a reality with the establishment of the Findlay St. Community in Cincinnati. The neighborhood where Findlay St. is located (Over-the-Rhine) is where most of the homeless of the city live. Later I also worked in one of the Health Department clinics in this neighborhood, providing ongoing primary care for people.

Both working and living in this neighborhood have made extensive changes in my life. Probably foremost is that living and working with poor folks gives you a better taste of reality about poverty than can ever be read about. Because of this, the Brothers at the Findlay St. Community developed an “Urban Plunge Program”. This takes high school and college students, and sometimes older adults, and inserts them into the neighborhood as they live at the Findlay St. Community and work in the neighborhood.

Most of these experiences are under three days in length (in the summer, mission trips would last 1-2 weeks), but even in that short time we saw what an impression would be made on these people. Over-the-Rhine is basically considered a battle zone/crime area because of the media portrayals. “Plungers” are usually quite anxious as they first arrive, but usually within a day they have become more comfortable as they walk through the neighborhood and meet the people. Yes, there are many problems in our neighborhood, but there are many more “regular” people here who think much like these outsiders think and want what they want.

In the past two years, I’ve moved from the mobile medical van program to an agency that works more with mentally ill indigent people. We’ve also recently opened a Respite Center. This is a place where homeless people, who shouldn’t be in a shelter where their recovery would be hindered, can recover from a medical illness.

The causes of homelessness are exceedingly complex. Often I’ll hear someone say something simplistic about how homelessness could be fixed. I can bet that this person has little real experience with homeless people.

First, there is a very inadequate supply of affordable housing. In these 15 years, we’ve experienced that it’s not only from lack of money, but federal, state and municipal governments often even put roadblocks up in the quest to house people. Over a quarter of homeless adults have a severe, persistent mental illness. Many of these people have gone untreated since childhood. These illnesses, like most medical illnesses, are much more easily treated early on. As they become more and more ingrained, they can become virtually irreversible. Then these adults become permanently unable to work and live in regular society. Our country has not made the means available for most low income people to get care for their mental illnesses.

Around a third of homeless adults suffer from an addiction. Most of us have little idea what addiction truly is. We see it as a moral/motivation disorder. Indeed, moral and motivational treatments are, on the whole, all we’ve got for the treatment of addictions. In reality, addiction is a physical/brain problem (granted that bad choices are part of it but are not primary to the disorder). Millions of Americans of all socio-economic classes suffer from this, but still we have no adequate treatment. We simply look with disdain on those who are suffering from this horrible, debilitating illness.

Homeless people have about twice as many acute and chronic illnesses as their domiciled counterparts. Despite this, only about 10% of homeless individuals have any kind of health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid. We won’t give a person a medical card to pay for his high blood pressure medicine (which might be as low as $10/month) but when that person goes into kidney failure from high blood pressure, then we’ll give him a medical card to pay for the dialysis. Homeless people often are forced to wait until they’re very sick then go to an emergency room for care. Obviously this is an expensive and inhumane way of treating sick people. These are just a few of the many barriers that keep the numbers of homeless people on the rise in the US.

I think one of the most important things for those who want to promote justice is to be directly involved. As I mentioned, being in direct contact with those who suffer injustice is a life-changing event. How involved that might be is a discernment that each of us must pray about. Perhaps it’s like the members of the Findlay St. Community who moved and worked in a poverty area. Perhaps it’s like some of the students who made Urban Plunges and come back to work in a soup kitchen once a month or work on building rehab. Perhaps it’s a part-time job or volunteer position working with an agency which helps the poor. But direct involvement is critical.

Then getting help processing your involvement is helpful. What’s going on can be very confusing and the media are not only unhelpful but give flawed views and analysis. Advocacy with our elected officials is also important. The Marianist Social Justice Collaborative may be a way to direct your involvement.