by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: in understanding the vast ministry you are in charge of in our society, we’d like to hear your story. Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation?
Deacon Mike: Wow! Vast Ministry!, Yes, my vision of a widespread ministry, as of yet, largely unfulfilled. Cradle Catholic; attended Catholic Grammar School; Graduated from Fairfield University (Jesuit) with a degree in Physics; Altar Server, CYO, I had five younger brothers; our life was centered around work, family, and worship of God; frequent devotions, rosary, daily Mass. But Mass was in Latin; homilies were in Polish generally speaking. I didn’t understand either language. We were taught to be reverent. We were in the Divine Presence. My Grandmother lived upstairs from us and rented out rooms to the down and out; I realize many years later that she was essentially housing these men who would have been otherwise homeless.
Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of the OTS ministry you started. How did it start?
Deacon Mike: I started volunteering at an emergency homeless shelter in 1985. It was one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. Sleeping in one big room with 16 other persons; with no privacy except the restroom. For more than 25 years, as I saw them over and over again without any idea in my mind as to how to help them; and on the part of the homeless who I began to see as my friends, I saw how crushed they were. Total despair set in.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and began creating a program in which the homeless would create a home of their own. How did you make that decision? (I suggest changing the question to the following: So, what changed? How did you decide to start the OFF THE STREETS Program?
Deacon Mike: One year a Director of Religious Ed asked if I would speak to a group of about 60 young teenagers about homelessness. I decided to bring a homeless man I knew for many years to the meeting and let him tell the story of what it’s like living on the streets and how he ended up that way. His story was compelling, and the students raised enough money that I was able to get him into an apartment of his own. Then a second group of students and another and another. In three years, nine groups of students raised enough money to get nine homeless men Off The Streets. That led to the thought that maybe as an adult I could do more. (It takes The Holy Spirit a long time for things to sink into this Deacon!)
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be working in a special ministry. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ in helping the homeless?
Deacon Mike: It’s my treasure and my cross. The Holy Spirit has shown us a way to Help The Homeless OFF THE STREETS One Person At A Time. I wrote a book about it with the same title. I was so concerned that I would be inundated with phone calls and inquiries that I obtained a google voice and google email address. Little did I know how few would respond. And even from those who responded, how few would even attempt this ministry. It’s such a simple program and literally here’s how it works.
OFF THE STREETS provides a security deposit (sent directly to the landlord) and all the furniture and living needs (all donated) for any homeless person or family that has the ability to pay a rent going forward. We get our referrals from Case Managers working in existing homeless services agencies such as Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, Secular Agencies, Social Workers, and Pastors of Churches who are aware of parishioners in extraordinary need.
We are a tiny bit of the puzzle in eliminating the scourge of homelessness. But an important piece. We are a 501(c)(3) self-supporting through financial donations coming from the community. Individuals and Corporations are extremely interested in providing donations to OFF THE STREETS – because we have no paid staff, no offices or office expenses. We are referred to as an Unaffiliated Ministry which means that the Parish feels that OFF THE STREETS is a worthwhile ministry, but that it has its own liability insurance (similar to how other ministries are considered).
Once a Pastor understands what we are about, he sees that there is only a positive side to having a parish family or parish families involved with OFF THE STREETS. We don’t solicit donations from the parish. We don’t take money from the parish (although we might ask that a spare change jar be placed in the Narthex. The jar itself doesn’t bring in much money, but what it does do is to let every person who enters or leaves the church that there are the destitute in the community.
And the parishioners who devote time to OFF THE STREETS are doing what Pope Francis asks – to smell like the sheep, to be there with the people in the peripheries, the downcast, the rejected, the lonely, the hopeless. The ones who volunteer to be part of the furniture/living needs team get to see the miracle of a homeless person or family moving into an apartment they can call their own.
You might think that there would be a problem recruiting volunteers. But the reality is that many people who have an association with the poor such as through clothing or food banks, soup kitchens, shelters, or even within their own families are aching to do something permanent, something that is a step beyond what they see in the emergency shelters. Most people who volunteer with OFF THE STREETS find this ministry so compelling that they stay with it to their dying breath.
And what about this question that often comes up. Won’t OFF THE STREETS be stepping on other agencies’ toes? Isn’t there the problem of agencies doing the same thing, competing for the same resources? Well, OFF THE STREETS accepts no government funding at all. It relies on the premise that the funding will come from individuals, companies, foundations, fund-raisers, etc. And the fact that practically all the funds that come in are used for security deposits for homeless individuals and families who have already been vetted by other agencies, well, the money flows in.
When OFF THE STREETS gets an email from an agency that has recommended a homeless person/family, they have already found them a place to live, that they can afford. Timing is everything. The landlord wants his/her place rented. The agency has found an apartment, but timing is important. When OFF THE STREETS gets a referral, we send the security deposit check out that same day. No re-vetting the homeless, no bureaucratic delays, no paperwork. The lowest cost rentals are not advertised on Craig’s List or other media. Why? Because landlords would be inundated with requests. Each applicant would have to be screened. Very difficult. But – the low-cost landlords and the homeless services organizations have an informal bond.
When a landlord gets a referral from a homeless services provider, he/she knows that the rent is practically guaranteed – oftentimes the rent is partially subsidized through HUD, Housing First, Section 8. That part is guaranteed by the government. The remaining part of the rent? OK, if the tenant doesn’t pay it, the landlord doesn’t have to start eviction processes. No, the landlord can go back to the agency and see what the agency can do to ensure the tenant pays. It’s a win-win.
The idea that there’s no affordable housing. That’s a standard headline. Nothing new there. The local papers use this as filler material periodically. One of our Chapters is in Lancaster, PA. Look up the records and you’ll see that headline just about every year or two. And yet, OFF THE STREETS Lancaster has taken more than 3,600 men, women, and children (80% women and children) and placed them into housing since it was founded in 2013. How is that possible? Easy. The apartments people are moving into are tiny, sometimes nothing more than a room in a rooming house. But it’s theirs! They have their own privacy, their own palace! their own home. Tears of joy as they move into what was for years an unattainable goal.
Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?
Deacon Mike: My five formative years preparing for the Diaconate were almost overwhelming. At the time I was accepted to the formation program I was also laid off from my aerospace job. I had a decision to make. Should I continue to chase a corporate job by relocating; or should I just stay put, continue with the Diaconate Formation Program, downsize our house, and get certified to teach High School Physics. I chose to stay put. I didn’t yet connect what being a Deacon had to do with homelessness. I didn’t really know why I wanted to become a Deacon, except that I would serve in the Sanctuary at Mass.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts used in service to the homeless?
Deacon Mike: Absolutely A great question. My early Catholic upbringing brought me into the realm of the awesomeness of God; my education at Fairfield University further developed that and brought me into the strange, awesomeness of physics. The tension between the mysteriousness of the unfathomable universe and the unfathomable God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. After graduation, I entered the Air Force as a Physicist and was soon immersed in the mathematics/physics of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Mission. I began to see impossible dreams unfolding. Later assignments with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency showed me time and time again that in pursuing lofty, seemingly unattainable goals, disappointments occur with regularity. The only unforgivable failure in the Agency was a failure to try, to give up entirely.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being in ministry to the homeless? About living in a homeless atmosphere.
Deacon Mike: My only reason for this interview is to show others that it is not only possible to Help The Homeless OFF THE STREETS One Person At A Time, but that it is a proven method which has been shown over and over, nearly 6,000 times in seven cities in six States. It doesn’t take professional training or a degree. It just takes the will to Help The Homeless in a permanent way.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church in this area?
Deacon Mike: When the Apostles realized they couldn’t do it all, they appointed seven to serve the needs of the poor. They called them Deacons. When Jesus was going to a town or village, he sent Disciples out ahead of him. Pope Francis wants all of us Catholics, to be out in the peripheries. He wants this to be a Church of the Poor. What easier way to Evangelize and Spread the Good News than to Help a Homeless Person/Family OFF THE STREETS One Person At A Time? It’s easy, it’s life-changing, it just requires that simple Act of Faith. You can’t fail.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ working with the homeless?
Deacon Mike: Every time I read about or see a family taken OFF THE STREETS it brings indescribable joy to me; yet is bittersweet. There’s so much more to be done. So many parishes around the country have parishioners who would be more than willing to step up to this challenge. They just need a gentle hand, persuading them to just try. We are just beginning to understand the meaning of the following:
FOR PUBLIC RELEASE
February 14, 2022
To: All Chapters and supporters of OFF THE STREETS
In a letter dated February 9, 2022, Bishop Gainer includes the following powerful testimony. I would ask that it be communicated to everyone involved in any way with every Chapter of OFF THE STREETS and incorporated in their social media as well. Only God knows how Bishop Gainer’s testimonial may strengthen our resolve and encourage others to Help The Homeless OFF THE STREETS One Person At A Time!
“There is no more effective way for the family of faith to communicate the liberating message of Jesus Christ than to actively love, show compassion for and support the human family. The prophetic witness of Off the Streets is essential to the marginalized of the Lancaster area and beyond. To those who feel the weight of hopelessness, you are unveiling a world where the promise of a safe place to live can be realized and hope restored. Thank you for spreading faith, hope and love through Off the Streets ministry.”
Testimony approved for release; Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer, D.D., J.C.L.; Eleventh Bishop of Harrisburg
About the same time this testimony came in from Bishop Gainer, Deacon Ed Irelan started a Chapter of OFF THE STREETS in Toledo, Ohio. He was contacted by a City Manager who informed him that a family of eight had been evicted from a house which had been condemned because the landlord had let it go into disrepair. They had no way of getting their security deposit back. They had been living in one motel room for about a year. The Manager asked Deacon Ed if he could help out. Deacon Ed and his Chapter took this as their first family OFF THE STREETS! But the Deacon did something else. He asked the family if they would like to pray. So, they did. Deacon Ed then blessed their apartment. Then he mentioned that there was a Catholic Church nearby. They said they were interested in learning a little more about the Catholic Church. Deacon Ed mentioned a program called RCIA. They signed up for it. And within four months, on Holy Saturday 2022, two of them received the Sacraments of Initiation!!! Talk about Evangelizing!!!
Dr. Knight: As a follower of Christ what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?
Deacon Mike: I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t pray a lot that I would really give up. Prayer, the Rosary, daily Mass, listening to homilies, and trying to constantly look to the Face of Christ. I pray that many will be inspired by The Holy Spirit to contact me to learn more about OFF THE STREETS.
God’s Peace, Deacon Mike Oles
(203) 482-1460 email@example.com
Dr. Knight: Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that you do.