As with most things in life, the hard numbers can not illustrate the effect that Sojourner Truth House has had on the community of Gary over the last 20 years.
From community clients accessing the food pantry for help meeting their basic household needs to homeless clients seeking shelter, health care referrals, job training and counseling, the tale is ultimately told in the individual stories of the people who have walked out of Sojourner Truth House into better lives.
That being said, however, there are some numbers that speak too loudly to be ignored.
At its founding, and for several years thereafter, Sojourner Truth House was accommodating roughly 600-800 clients per year across its service areas. By 2016, this nonprofit organization sponsored by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC) as a refuge for homeless and at-risk women and their children was serving nearly 2,100 clients—per month.
“We’ve definitely seen a greater need for our services as the years have gone by,” says development services manager Sherita Brewer.
Brewer says that the most widely used service at Sojourner Truth House is the monthly food pantry and clothes closet for residents of Gary. These people, including seniors, the working poor and the recently unemployed, find themselves in temporary need of food or clothing.
While fewer in number than the food pantry participants, the clients with the most intense need are the homeless women and children who come to Sojourner Truth House from the local Missionaries of Charity and Calumet Township shelters. Brewer says that in trying to assess the life circumstances of these women, she and her staff find they come from an array of ages, backgrounds and situations, all of which work to upend stereotypes as well as to highlight the razor’s-edge vulnerability of many local residents to this potential plight.
“The truth is that many people are one missed paycheck or one health crisis or one divorce away from homelessness,” Brewer notes.
Sojourner Truth House is far from just a place for these women and their families to spend the night, however. Brewer say the organization’s homeless services include mandatory classes in everything from music and art to basic budgeting, as well as wellness instruction for the women and their families, random drug testing, mental health support and counseling. The idea, she says, is to reinforce the notion for these clients that they didn’t do something wrong to get here and to show them how they can leave with greater knowledge and confidence to confront life's challenges.
Such nonjudgmental, uplifting help is also what inspires the third main group of clients at Sojourner Truth House—the Transitional Outreach Program Participants (TOPPs). Brewer characterizes these clients as formerly homeless individuals who have found housing but still require some assistance on the path to sobriety, employment and/or full mental health.
“Our TOPPs clients have a comfort level from having worked with our counselors before,” Brewer explains. “Knowing how we work and how we listen and what’s expected of them can help them along on their continuing journey.”
As Sojourner Truth House looks to continuing to serve these three primary constituencies in Gary for the next 20 years, Brewer says the organization faces two main challenges. The first is trying to remain relevant as client needs and social issues change.
“We’re in a constant state of evolution,” she says. “For example, the basic skills class that we offered as recently as 10 years ago was much different than what we’re offering today. So it’s just a matter of understanding what our clients need as the world changes and adjusting our offerings to reflect that.”
The second is not at all unique to Sojourner Truth House, and is, in fact, a common concern for almost any nonprofit organization—funding.
“There are a lot of competing needs out there, and when it comes to homelessness, people don’t always want to acknowledge how close to home it hits,” Brewer says.
Still, Brewer remains proud of the work Sojourner Truth House does and optimistic that the organization will continue to thrive for years thanks to the donations of time and resources from members of the community. She still sees the success stories of formerly homeless clients as proof of just how important this place has been to Gary.
“People know that when they invest in Sister Peg (executive director Peg Spindler), we’re going to be good stewards of their dollars and that we care deeply about the community. We’ve stayed, cared and evolved over the past 20 years, and we plan to do so for many more.”