by Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Editor’s note: Names of some of the Williamsburg House of Mercy clients mentioned in this article have been changed at their request due to the sensitivity of the topic.
When clients walk through the doors of Williamsburg House of Mercy, they are walking into a place of love, a place where staff and volunteers greet them with smiles as they provide basic and unconventional services.
Williamsburg House of Mercy helps homeless and low-income men and women in Williamsburg, James City County and upper York County.
“It is part of our identity as Catholics to serve our neighbor, especially ‘the least of these,’ and in doing so we see the distressed face of Christ,” said Shannon Woloszynowski, executive director of Williamsburg House of Mercy and director of pastoral services for St. Bede Parish in Williamsburg. “The people we serve have been rejected in so many ways by the world. Our acts of charity and compassion can restore their dignity and heal them while meeting their material, mental and spiritual needs.”
Williamsburg House of Mercy, a non-profit corporation created when Pope Francis declared the Year of Mercy in December 2015, is an outreach of St. Bede Parish. Volunteers from more than 20 faith groups and organizations work together to provide a day center for homeless men and women, housing assistance, food distribution, emergency financial aid, a prison ministry and a pregnancy resource center. But Williamsburg House of Mercy does more to serve its clients. A client, Robert, needed bus fare to get to Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond where he is being treated for cancer. Paul needed both glasses and hearing aids. James needed help getting his driving privileges reinstated after 10 years of living on the street. Once he passed his driver’s test, Williamsburg House of Mercy gave him a donated car, enabling him to get a job because he had reliable transportation. He is now gainfully employed and self-sufficient, Mrs. Woloszynowski said.Most of the services of Williamsburg House of Mercy are located in a St. Bede Parish building close to downtown Williamsburg.
Harbor, its day center for the homeless, welcomes between 15 and 25 guests each weekday. The center provides showers, breakfast and lunch, and a place to talk with friends. The facility will also help its clients look for jobs and apply for housing assistance and social service programs.
During Fiscal Year 2017 (July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017) the ministry “rapidly rehoused” 84 households, Mrs. Woloszynowski said. The rapid rehousing model focuses on rehousing homeless clients within 30 days of first contact. Rapid rehousing consists of move-in fees (first month’s rent and security deposit) and case management to ensure stability.
That assistance was a lifesaver for Verna, who had been incarcerated for crimes stemming from drug addiction. After leaving jail she went to a sober living house, but when she could no longer pay rent, she sought financial assistance from the House of Mercy.
After assessing Verna’s needs, the ministry helped her find an apartment elsewhere in Williamsburg. With Social Security Disability payments and earnings from a part-time restaurant job, she is now self-sufficient. She credits Williamsburg House of Mercy for helping her turn her life around.
“My whole thinking has changed,” Verna said. “I don’t get up and dread the day anymore. I am enjoying my life.”
While Williamsburg House of Mercy would like to help each client become “stabilized and self-sufficient,” Mrs. Woloszynowski said that is a long process for some people as many who are homeless struggle with serious mental illness or substance abuse, and some have been victims of violence. Some of them report feeling safer in a tent in the woods because they know how to rig it for safety. The House of Mercy responds by providing food, tents and camping supplies to them.
“We’re kind of like Jesus in that we meet the clients where they are,” Mrs. Woloszynowski. said
The prison ministry brings Bible studies and faith-building programs to inmates in Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. Once they are released, these former inmates receive assistance from Williamsburg House of Mercy as needed, and are eligible for the ministry’s full range of services.
HOPE Pregnancy Center provides pregnancy tests and referrals for prenatal care and other services for women who choose life for their babies. Volunteers offer support to the women throughout their pregnancies by calling regularly to listen to their hopes and fears, reassure them and refer them to outside services when needed, explained MaryEllen Pitard, the center’s executive director.
The center offers parenting classes, gives away items including maternity clothes and layettes, and assists with Medicaid co-pays for prenatal care and delivery costs. Currently Williamsburg House of Mercy is working with the Virginia Department of Social Services to pilot a Baby Box program as a distribution center.
This program, which educates caretakers about safe sleeping for infants, provides new and expectant families a decorated box with a mattress and fitted sheet to serve as a bassinette. It also includes diapers, wipes, a onesie and coupons. Parents must watch an educational video in order to receive the Baby Box.
While giving items to its clients is helpful, Mrs. Woloszynowski said she hopes Williamsburg House of Mercy will develop deeper connections with those they serve.
“We don’t want to just give out something and pat ourselves on the back,” she explained. “We have moved beyond a transactional relationship to something more relational. By establishing the bonds of trust we have been able to assist people in moving beyond homelessness.”