Compassion for people experiencing homelessness who have suffered trauma is at the center of one continuum of care provider in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
John walked into Father Rusty Smith’s office at Saint Martin’s Hospitality Center. He carried a used and creased cardboard sign that read “Homeless” in black marker. He handed it to Smith and said, “My name is not Homeless. I used to be a teacher, I love classical music, and I have children, but people don’t see me. They only see me as homeless.”
“That day I was reminded that people are so deeply who they are when we truly see them as they see themselves, as John did that day. Leaving his sign with me had somehow transformed John into part of my family. We had a level of trust and understanding to bind us. I knew deep down he would no longer be defined by that sign, which remains in my office today as a reminder,” said Smith.
Smith is the Executive Director of Saint Martin’s Hospitality Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Saint Martin’s frequently collaborates with local service agencies, such as Albuquerque Heading Home, to provide a continuum of care for the clients they serve. The services they provide include: behavioral health services, substance use assistance, employment services, and housing services such as transitional housing, rapid rehousing, housing relocation, and emergency shelter support and intake. Together the agencies also engage in Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), Shelter Plus Care, and outreach. Each of these components work together like a blues riff—jamming with each other to find the best service combination to meet the different needs of different people. At the center of all of this is compassion for other human beings.
Smith began his life as a Catholic. “The priest of my family was my mother. She worked full-time and lived by loving others. As a young boy I was a resistant participant to her ways of service, but she took me to [visit] a shelter in Austin, Texas,” he said.
Smith admits that he had a terrible attitude and that he made her life miserable on that trip. “Here she works all week, and she has a son who is a monster,” said Smith. As they were driving home, she pulled the car over abruptly and said, “This is not about the poor. This is about you growing up to be a human being that I respect.” She believed in helping people that no one else cared about. This is part of who Father Rusty is today. That car trip with his mother changed his life.
As an adult, Smith studied liberation theology from Gustavo Gutierrez, a priest who believed that all human beings should be free. Gutierrez believed human beings both created freedom and enslaved each other, but he focused on freedom. The applied theology of this understanding is that you change the world through action: “You feed the hungry. You can’t just talk about doing it.” Smith’s work has found its strength among people who live on the margins.
“The context of human liberation is so stunning—why do I put shackles on your dreams? And yet we do this all the time. At Saint Martin’s we help people to find the keys to those shackles without putting new ones on,” said Smith.
Smith recounted the day when “An older man wearing slacks, a cardigan sweater, and sturdy brown shoes walked up to me.” Barely able to contain his grief, the newness of it, he shared that his wife just died. “‘I have no place to go home to,’ said the man quietly. He looked like any of our grandfathers and he looked really very scared. I walked him to the shelter and showed him around. We were able to get him a hotel room, but it broke my heart,” said Smith. Seeing this brokenhearted man who missed his wife and had no place to go transcended the grief of homelessness on this particular day.
No one wants to be homeless.
Learn more about the Shelter Plus Care Program at HUD Exchange. SAMHSA’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Evidence-Based Practices (EBP) KIT — 2008 explains how ACT offers customized, community-based services for people with mental illness.
Wendy Grace Evans-Dittmer