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Andrew Brewer, 45, an employee at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph, has recently had his working hours reduced to help the center balance its budget. "I'd be in prison if not for this place," he said.

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Beverly Patton, assistant director at the Franciscan Outreach Association, discusses a recent event that reminded her of her own experience of being homeless with children.

Chicago shelter cuts employee hours to keep from cutting services

by Robert Andersson
Nov 07, 2012


Robert Andersson/MEDILL

A resident and volunteer works in the women's dorm at the Franciscan House on Chicago's near West Side.


Robert Andersson/MEDILL

Cyndy Northington, director of the Franciscan House, inspects produce, much of which is donated by a local Trader Joe's grocery store every Thursday. "Improvements and fixes for the building add up quickly," she said. "We're always looking to be efficient with our funds whenever we can."

Rows of well-made beds filled the women's dormitory at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph on Chicago's near West Side last week, the room empty but for a few volunteers and an elderly resident.

The resident, a woman who was leaving the emergency overnight shelter after living there since May, packed her belongings into plastic bags as smooth jazz crackled from the well-worn radio on her bed.

Curtis Cotten, 60, a case manager working at the center, helped load bag after bag onto a small pushcart, his tall, slender frame looming over the petite woman as they walked out together. The resident had found a new apartment, Cotten said proudly.

"Some people can become complacent living here," he said. "We try to help them get back on their feet and out into the real world. We want all of them to work. We want them to be responsible."

Opened in 1963 as a half-way house for ex-offenders, the Franciscan Outreach Association, a collection of facilities and programs designed to care for and rehabilitate the homeless, shelters more than 200 people a night at 2715 West Harrison Street, a function, representatives said, that is desperately needed.

In the wake of the recession, the association, which still hopes to raise another $300,000 this year in new or increased donations over 2011’s total, has been forced to cut benefits and the number of full-time positions available to employees.

"The services we provide are life-preserving," said Diana Faust, executive director of the Franciscan Outreach Association. "We have to turn people away all of the time. Whether they seek shelter because of the cold in the winter or because of violence in the summer, we don't have enough room."

The association, which Faust said relies heavily on donations to meet its estimated $1.6 million yearly operating cost, has seen a recent decline in charitable giving, though a recent change in accounting systems makes it hard for her to cite specific data showing the change.

"The small donations and the large donations have stayed the same," she said. "But the mid-tier donations have declined. They are the ones who have been most impacted by the economic downturn."

Two weeks ago, five full-time positions were transitioned into 12 separate part-time jobs, a move administrators said would save the center $150,000 a year in an attempt to balance the operating budget without altering the services available to residents.

Andrew Brewer, 45, an employee at the center and former resident, said his hours were reduced from 40 to 30 per week. Regardless, he said, he remains motivated.

"I want people to go to bed with a good meal," he said. "I want to put a smile on their faces. I want to help them."

Brewer cherishes the idea of giving people the opportunity to redeem themselves, something the Franciscan House gave him seven years ago.

"All these people want is a chance," he said. "There are a lot of good brothers and sisters out there, regardless of race. People deserve more than what society gives them. Here, they can get the help they need."

Cotten, who has worked to help the impoverished for 13 years, also empathizes with what residents are experiencing.

"There was a time in my life when I was in their position," he said. Drugs "weren't my problem, they were my solution. But I've been sober for 18 years now. I learned how to work. Now, I'm hopeful enough to give hope, and that's what a lot of these people need."

Administrators at the center hope to raise the necessary funds through donations while becoming less reliant on bequests -- or donations left to the center in someone's will.

For Cotten, he wonders if that time will come soon enough.

"I've had offers for jobs that paid more but turned them down because I'm needed here," he said. "I haven't had a raise in two years. I don't want to leave, but I have to think about myself as well."