The Invisible Population

The office/play room downstairs. This space allows the family to search for jobs online while letting their little ones play.

The office/play room downstairs. This space allows the family to search for jobs online while letting their little ones play.

I do not know if I could ever look someone in the eye who has nowhere else to go and tell them I cannot help them. This is what Sister Maureen does on a daily basis; the day before my visit she turned down 5 families. Sister Maureen is the heart and soul of The Dorothy Day House. As I sat and listened to Sister Maureen discuss all that the organization does for the city of Memphis, I was filled with awe, compassion, sadness, and was on the verge of tears multiple times. Listening to her recount how many families she has to turn away made my heart sink and my eyes well with tears. Sister Maureen shared with me how homeless families are the invisible population. You rarely, if ever, will see a homeless family out at night, because they are trying to remain unseen. If they are seen and confirm they are homeless, their children will be taken away.  Sister Maureen says on any given night there are between 100 and 200 homeless families, in Memphis. Some of these families are without a home because of a traumatic event, such as sudden loss of work or a house fire; others are in these circumstances because of generational poverty. Either way, these families are under much stress and want desperately to provide for their spouse or children, but do not have the means.

The large kitchen that the families share in the house

The large kitchen that the families share in the house

I am glad to know that the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality exists and is committed to keeping family units together. There are over 150 Dorothy Day Houses of Hospitality; each are independently run and funded. These houses receive no government or state funding, and are solely sustained on donations. The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality provides temporary housing and support services for homeless families throughout Memphis. With the help of local agencies, staff, and volunteers, the Dorothy Day House provides families with a safe environment, and the means to re-establish their independence. Throughout the family’s stay, they receive assistance with education guidance, parenting skills, employment counseling, transportation, child care referrals, budgeting advice, and access to sources of permanent housing. The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality works with each family to set personal goals and make sure that each family is continually working toward those goals. The staff also stay in close contact with the families after they leave the Dorothy Day House in order to assure they are able to maintain their independence. I will end with a quote from Dorothy Day that truly expresses how my heart feels after my time spent at the Dorothy Day House:

“What we would like to do is change the world-make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended for them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute…we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing that we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.”

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Week 12, Day 7: Michael Garcia at Dorothy Day House of Hospitality

My final assignment for my Volunteer Odyssey was to visit the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, a shelter for homeless families located on Poplar Ave. At the house, I met Sister Maureen, the executive director of the Dorothy Day House, along with some members of the families currently residing there. We had coffee and delicious lemon cake while Sister Maureen told me all about the shelter.

When families become homeless they often get split up, with different members going to different shelters. Some shelters will only take adult men while others take only women, adults and children. Boys who are not yet adults are often left with nowhere to go. The Dorothy Day House was founded with the purpose of keeping homeless families intact while they get back on their feet.

The shelter is named for Dorothy Day, who during the Great Depression, founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a volunteer organization which served the poor and homeless. There are many Dorothy Day Houses in the US and abroad, but they are unaffiliated and independent of each other, each serving its own community as best it can. The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality here in Memphis acquired its house in 2004, and after extensive renovation opened in 2006. They have plans of expanding and opening more houses here in Memphis.

The shelter does not receive any funding from the City or any religious organization. They depend entirely on private donations. Sister Maureen explained to me that this allows them to be free from any externally imposed restrictions about who they can give shelter to and how long they are allowed to stay.

The Dorothy Day House has the capacity to house three families at a time. Every family goes through a screening process to determine if they can be best helped by the Dorothy Day House and if they would get along well with the other families living there. If they are accepted, the staff of the Dorothy Day House work with the families to set goals to get them back into their own home. The families stay as long as they need to as long as they are working to meet their goals.

While visiting there I met Taylor, the father of one of the families. He recently found a job working at an upscale restaurant here in Memphis. His son, Justice, is a big fan of Spider-Man. I also met Caitlin, a teenager whom Sister Maureen described as a great influence on the other children living in the house. She always starts her homework immediately after arriving back from school, whereupon the other children gather around her at a table and do their homework.

After the coffee and cake, Sister Maureen gave me a tour of the ground floor. There is a large kitchen, a dining room, living room, and a playroom that doubles as a computer room, where the adults can go online and apply for jobs. On the tour, I was particularly interested in a picture of Dorothy Day that hangs above the fireplace in the dining room. It is done in the style of a medieval illuminated manuscript, which is why it caught my attention. The picture was donated to the shelter by someone who actually knew Dorothy Day, had opened several Dorothy Day shelters around the world, and had come to Memphis to help train the staff at the shelter here.

Michael Garcia at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality.

Michael Garcia at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality.

All the furniture in the Dorothy Day House was donated, and they have storage units full of more donated furniture and household goods. When families are able to move out of the Dorothy Day House and into their own home, they often receive furniture from the Dorothy Day House so that they won’t be moving into a bare house or apartment. The staff at the shelter continue their relationships with those families once they move out, to do all they can to ensure their success.

Donating furniture is only one way people can help out the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality. In addition to accepting financial contributions, the shelter is always looking for volunteers to help out with things like house maintenance and yard work, cooking meals, childcare, and assisting with fundraisers. They are also very flexible regarding volunteers’ ability to contribute. I let Sister Maureen know that I am interested in helping tutor residents.

Driving home from the shelter, I realized that my Volunteer Odyssey week was now over. Of course that doesn’t mean my volunteering is over. I definitely intend to return to the places I’ve been blogging about this past week.

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Week 10, Day 7: Rae-Anne Pitts at Dorothy Day House

On the final day of my volunteer week I went to the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality. The Dorothy Day House provides temporary housing for homeless families. On any given night there are over 200 homeless families in Memphis. Typically, when a family becomes homeless, the men in the family have to go to shelter or seek help downtown, at either a soup kitchen or through Hospitality Hub. An assistance shelter such as the Salvation Army can take in the mother and smaller children. Older children are often put in the foster care system until the family is able to provide a home again. This system pulls the family members in different directions, and keeps them from staying together as a family unit. This flaw in the system is what the Dorothy Day House seeks to address.  The Dorothy Day House enables entire families to stay together. The facility opened in 2006 and has since seen thirty families pass through the doors. Unless you knew what lies behind its doors, you would think it is just another house in midtown Memphis.


From the outside, The Dorothy Day House is unassuming; I had passed by the house probably a hundred times. There is no sign out front but what happens at the Dorothy Day House is truly remarkable. On this night of volunteering, my husband came with me. When we pulled up to the house we were not sure if we were in the right place. We walked up to the front door, with our dessert in tow, and rang the doorbell. The director at the house is Sister Maureen, who answered the door. She showed us around, and then sat us down to tell us about the history of Dorothy Day and the Dorothy Day House.


Dorothy Day lived from 1897-1980, in New York. She helped to establish the Catholic Workers Movement, in which she advocated for non-violence, and the belief that the needy should be take care of by churches, not the government. She felt, it is the responsibility of individuals to take care of those in need. Sister Maureen told us that she and others had studied Dorothy Day years before, and because of her teachings, began to pray for the needs in Memphis.  Sister Maureen says that the Dorothy Day House began out of prayer.

Sister Maureen works with all of the families that come to the Dorothy Day House, to see what it will take to turn their lives around. All of the families set goals and monitor progress during their stay. As long as they are working towards their goals, families are allowed to stay.  Mostly, individual contributions fund the Dorothy Day House. It receives some donations from churches but no money from the government. Volunteers help with needs of the families there, and the maintenance of the house. The absence of government funding makes the Dorothy Day House distinctly different from other housing organizations such as the Salvation Army. With government funding comes restraints on how long families are able to stay, whereas at the Dorothy Day House families can stay as long as they need as long as they are working towards their family goals.

Every Sunday night a few volunteers and the families meet downstairs, for prayer and dessert. I volunteered to bring dessert on this night. We all recited prayer, and passages of scripture with one of the volunteers leading us. Everyone was given the chance to say what they are thankful for, and ask God for blessings such as patience. After the prayer, we all had dessert and visited with one another.

I loved that they have family photos on the wall of families that have come through the Dorothy Day House.

I loved that they have family photos on the wall of families that have come through the Dorothy Day House.

The image of the homeless that is often not seen or thought of is that of homeless families. If you picture homeless the image that most often springs to mind is that of a homeless man, who lives alone, and begs for money. Homeless mother and fathers, with children living in their cars or cramming in an apartment with many family members is also a reality.  These families do anything they can to keep from being separated, and to keep their children rather than have them taken away, and to be put in the system. The Dorothy Day House is a unique and special place that fills a serious and often overlooked need in Memphis. These families do not have anywhere else to turn, and no other way to stay together. My husband and I enjoyed learning about the Dorothy Day House and visiting with the families. We both signed up to keep volunteering there.

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Week 5, Day 7: Samantha Hicks at The Dorthy Day House of Hospitality

I woke up on day 7 feeling kind of weird knowing it was my last day with the program. I IMAG1433know that this does not have to mean it will be my last time volunteering or anything but Sarah and Volunteer Odyssey made it so easy for me to volunteer. I can only hope I am able to gather enough self-discipline to keep a few hours of volunteering in my weekly routine. The feeling that comes with helping others is wonderful and definitely something I would like to continue. My goal is that when you hear from me again I am able to report that I have continued in what I believe is my duty as a resident of Memphis and am still helping others in the community.

Okay, on to day 7. On this day I spent my evening at the Dorthy Day House of Hospitality. My husband, daughter, and I spent a couple of hours simply visiting with the residents of the house. We stayed for prayer and dessert hour and pretty much talked while the kids played. It honestly felt like we were visiting a friend’s home on a Sunday evening. If you don’t already know, the Dorthy Day House is the only shelter in Memphis that is willing to take in homeless family. All of the other shelters force families to separate. Can you IMAG1437imagine being a single mother of a thirteen year old boy and being forced to separate from him in order to have a place to stay at night? This happens all of the time in our city (as well as other cities). Most shelters simply will not agree to take both males and females in the same facility. The Dorthy Day House is an exception to this rule. This shelter which resides in a beautiful home built in the early 1900’s is equipped to house three families. The home is beautiful and feels exactly as it should, like a home. If you have ever visited a shelter you are aware that although the facility might try to and make the residents stay feel “homey”, it just doesn’t usually happen. After all, how can it feel like home when you have to shower at a scheduled time after waiting in a long line and eat with 100 other people cafeteria style. I have hear many people who have stayed in shelters in other states describe staying in a shelter as being in prison. The residents at the DDH have one large room per family, a large dining room, a great room, a play/computer room, and an amazing kitchen where families are free to cook their family’s favorite meals. The DDH is 100% funded by donations from private donors and is run almost entirely by volunteers. This means that they do not receive finding from and local or state programs and are currently not funded by any grants. It is amazing to think that there are citizens in Memphis that have been gracious enough to provide this programIMAG1436 with so much.

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Week 5, Day 7: Atina Rizk at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality

You are a hardworking person with a family to support. You have a job, a home, a car and a truck, and are living a good clean life. The stock market crashes. Your small business fails. You live off of savings while you look for a job. Your car breaks down. You lose your house. You spend all your money to move to a new place where you have been promised steady work. The person you relied on disappears. Your truck gets stolen. You are stranded. But you still have that family to support. How are you going to keep them together?

The charming facade of the Dorothy Day House is just a hint of the architectural features within.

The charming facade of the Dorothy Day House is just a hint of the architectural features within.


For a precious few, the answer is the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, a shelter for homeless families. Sister Maureen, a Catholic nun for 48 years, works to provide a stable and supportive environment for families while they get back on their feet. It’s in a large and beautiful house on Poplar Avenue close to downtown. At the moment two families live here, a mother (we’ll call her “K”) with two of her children and a married couple (let’s call them “Mr. and Mrs. G”) with one of their children. All of the things in the first paragraph happened to Mr. and Mrs. G.

Mr. and Mrs. G are victims of the recession. They are both clean cut, smart, and capable. Mr. G worked construction and demolition. He used to bid on small jobs and earned the majority of his profit by carefully recycling hardware, metal, and whatever he found in the buildings he was breaking down. Mrs. G had her own cleaning business. So many calamities have hit them that they haven’t been able to keep up. I cannot blame them.

The dining table at the Dorothy Day House is often set for many people, as members of the community often visit for dinner. The walls are lined with pictures of the families that have stayed there.

The dining table at the Dorothy Day House is often set for many people, as members of the community often visit for dinner. The walls are lined with pictures of the families that have stayed there.

I know that I would be able to fall back on my family to support me if all of this happened to me, but if your relatives are struggling just like you, how can you expect them to support you too? That is what the Dorothy Day House is to these people. It’s a place to go until you get back on your feet, a place to be encouraged for a little while; it’s what your family would provide if they could.

Mr. and Mrs. G both have job interviews next week, I honestly pray that they succeed, and I have a feeling that they will. They have never been homeless before, and it’s only been a few weeks. They seem so responsible, and are such good parents! I have never met more polite kids, which brings me to K and her children.

K's daughter's precious drawings on the driveway. The House provides stability for her while her mom gets things back in order.

K’s daughter’s precious drawings on the driveway. The House provides stability for her while her mom gets things back in order.

K has had a hard life. Her first child died of sudden infant death syndrome. She was a victim of domestic abuse. Despite her sadness, she had a steady job for many years, but she was laid off along with twenty other people during a company merger. She lost her car and then her home. I can tell it’s hard for her to tell me her story. Her children are both so bright and talented. K’s employment prospects are limited by where the bus can reliably take her on time. It’s a truly difficult situation, but she works to find a job every day. With luck, she’ll get one soon.

Homeless families are an “invisible problem,” according to Sister Maureen. They do not like to call attention to themselves, because they are terrified that their children will be taken away from them. This means they do not feel safe at the soup kitchens. No other shelter in Memphis allows for teenage boys to stay. Most of the shelters require couples to live apart. Sister Maureen has to turn as many as 100 families away a year. Thinking about that makes me want to weep, but it also inspires me give all the help I can. I hope you are inspired too.

Week 3, Day 7: Kevin Nowlin at Dorothy Day of Hospitality

Today was my final day of the Volunteer Odyssey. This week has afforded opportunities that I never would have had otherwise, and I’m a better person on many levels for it. I reflect on the week as I drive over to the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality (DDHH) and I wonder how I will be serving when I get there. Sister Maureen greets me at the back door and says that she has been anticipating my arrival and invites me in. The very first room to the right, when you walk in through the back, is a large kitchen that has an expansive island-top and multi-eye gas burning range stove. This is where I figure I’ll be working even though I’m not entirely certain what my serving capacity entails. We continue on through this large and beautiful house to the main sitting area and take a seat on the couch to wait for the others to arrive. Sister Maureen has a tranquil and tender countenance and she gives me the history and current progress at the DDHH. The DDHH of Memphis was founded in May of 2006 by a group concerned citizens that wanted to fill in some of the housing gaps for the homeless. The DDHH’s mission is to keep homeless families together during times of hardship until a more solidified financial situation is formed. The DDHH has particular set of guidelines for the families that they accept. For instance, they will not take in people that have a problem with drugs, alcohol, or domestic abuse. As Sister Maureen puts it, “we are not social workers, just caring Memphians.” The type of families living at the DDHH could be anyone of us who have experienced some type of uncontrollable catastrophe rendering us completely vulnerable with nowhere to turn. Sister Maureen also explains to me that on any given day there are approximately 214 homeless families in the Memphis area. That’s a difficult fact to digest, especially when I see so many vacant homes on the market for months and months and even longer still. Sister Maureen regretfully turns away up to 100 families a year. She is working on compiling grant writing resources in hopes that a financial windfall will allow her to purchase the two rather large homes across the street for further family housing.
At this point the sitting area fills with more people, some living there, and some visiting. I meet the families living there and others who are they to just share time and fellowship. A circle is now forming and we are all handed a sheet of paper with hymns and prayers to follow along with and read out loud. I now realize I am not here to serve in the sense that I have served most of this week, but to offer my time in spirit, prayer, and conversation. That is a service with which I am well-versed and grateful to give. At the end of prayer and scripture there is time to reflect and offer thanks for our blessings. One of the single moms offers thanks for her new job at FedEx and we offer thanks with her. She had been on the job hunt for a while and had several promising positions fall through at the last minute. It was clear that this job came at the right time and her smile spoke more than I could write here. We close with the Lord’s Prayer and move on to dessert. I spend the majority of the remainder of the evening in the kitchen talking with two of the single moms that live in the house as the kids play outside in the freezing cold and blustery winds. One of the moms looks soulfully out the window as the kids shoot hoops and throw the football. She explains that this season of life has been difficult because she does not have transportation and her kids are two different schools and the process of getting student bus passes has been tumultuous. The strain wears her out but she is hopeful about the future and excited to finish her continuing education in a few weeks. Even though the transition is difficult for the families, I see they are happy to have each other and that life is heading into a positive future.

Keeping families together is so important. I offer thanks for the DDHH.


Sister Maureen


Silly faces for the camera!

IMG_0060 IMG_0061

Week 2, Day 7: Rivers Powers at Dorothy Day House of Hospitality

Everyone knows that homelessness is a problem in America, but what most people don’t know is how the system works to combat the problem. Homeless shelters exist and are supported by governments, faith-based organizations, and non-governmental organizations. However, many shelters have very specific requirements for who they allow to reside in them. Some are gender specific, substance-free, number restricting (per family unit), time limited, or religiously affiliated, but very few allow families to remain intact or allow male children over the age of about 6. This is where the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality comes in: to fill this void and prevent families from being separated just because they are homeless.

Dorothy Day House of Hospitality is a great place for families, who can’t get into a typical shelter, to stay while they are getting back on their feet. Some families who have come through the Dorothy Day House are homeless due to traumatic life events, financial circumstances, or rebuilding their lives after incarceration, but the common thread they all share is a willingness to be self-sufficient and needing some assistance figuring out how to do that. Dorothy Day House has social, instructional, technological, and occupational resources available for the families to help them with school and the life, job, and financial skills they will need for independent living. Because these resources are available to women with children of both genders, regardless of age, the Dorothy Day House is filling a vacancy left by the system.

The Dorothy Day House offers several social opportunities each week for its residents. On Sundays, there is dessert and spiritual social during which time a volunteer brings desserts and scriptures and prayers are read by the group. This is a fun way to get to know new people who may not get to socialize often or may feel disconnected from the world around them. I totally failed to take photos when I was there, but I really enjoyed the Rice Krispy treats and fruit with my conversation on Sunday.

Week 1, Day 7: John Cook at Dorothy Day House of Hospitality Soup Supper

Wouldn’t you know it–yesterday was snowy and cold while I worked outside, and today is sunny and perfect and I’m working inside. Sarah is really testing me….

Today I am helping set up for a soup supper to acknowledge and thank all the volunteers and donors who help Dorothy Day’s House of Hospitality maintain her mission. For those of you who don’t know, the Dorothy Day House is a homeless shelter that strives to keep families together. I have seen plenty of homeless men out and about town. Occasionally I’ll come across a homeless woman, but I have never before seen a homeless family. But they DO exist. Homeless families aren’t seen very often because they are usually hiding. They don’t want to risk getting caught and having their kids taken away. The Dorothy Day House is the only homeless shelter in Memphis that keeps families together. When homeless families are able to stay together, they tend to have an easier time getting back on their feet, so to speak. The shelter is able to run with the help of donors and volunteers who help with services like education resources, child care, transportation, food and clothing donations, and legal and financial advice, to name a few.


Soup Supper at I.C.

I arrive at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in midtown and find my way to the basement, where I am supposed to keep my eyes peeled for Sister Maureen. I’ve never met Sister Maureen, so naturally I’m looking for the quintessential nun, dressed in a black and white habit, possibly with a ruler in hand, in case I misbehave. I was a little confused when I did meet Sister Maureen. She was dressed in normal clothes. Was this allowed? The answer: Yes. Apparently Hollywood has definitely had an impact on how I pictured nuns. (Don’t act like you wouldn’t have made the same mistake.) She introduced herself, then ordered me to spit out my gum and get to work. (totally kidding!)


NOT Sister Maureen


I get assigned a few different tasks to help set up of the supper: set tables, fold programs, and make a huge vat of tea.


Brewed it like a BOSS

Before the supper starts, I get a chance to meet a few others who are involved in helping at the shelter. I met a young woman named Jaimi Cornelsen who is relatively new to Memphis. She explains that she has always been involved in volunteer work and jumped at the chance to help at the Dorothy Day House once she heard about it. I can hear the alacrity (look it up) in Jaimi’s voice when she talks about her time spent helping the people there.

The room starts to fill with people and Sister Maureen acknowledges all the hard work of everyone invited to the supper. She also shows a short documentary that explains exactly WHO Dorothy Day was. I’m not going to go into it, but that Dorothy Day is quite the fascinating woman. Talk about someone who did the right thing regardless of people standing in her way. I’m intrigued by people like her, who have ideas and actually put them in motion without letting anyone else stop them. And from what I gathered while at the soup supper, with her “can do” spirit, Sister Maureen, who is the director of the shelter, is quite a bit like Dorothy Day herself.


Setting up for the Soup Supper