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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Sacred Shelter: Thirteen Journeys of Homelessness and Healing

by Susan Greenfield

This book is an inside look at an interfaith program for the homeless in New York City, including in-depth stories of those who have graduated and made new lives. In a metropolis like NYC, homelessness can blend into the urban landscape. For Susan Greenfield, however, New York is the place where a community of resilient, remarkable individuals is yearning for a voice. Sacred Shelter follows the lives of 13 formerly homeless people, all of whom have graduated from an interfaith life skills program for current and former homeless individuals in the city. Through interviews, these individuals share traumas from their youth, their experience with homelessness and the healing they’ve discovered through community and faith.

The purpose of Sacred Shelter’s design is twofold. The book gives pride of place to the program graduates who were once homeless and marginalized, recording and honoring each of their histories from childhood to adulthood. In their life stories (organized chronologically based on graduation dates), the memoirists describe being children who loved their families, played with friends, went to school, grew up, got jobs, fell in love, and had children of their own. At some point and often more than once each of them was traumatized or had a crisis. Though rarely in any kind of linear fashion, this contributed to their becoming homeless, which is itself a trauma and crisis. Eventually all the contributors in this book found healing and rebuilt their lives. Their stories refer to mental illness, substance use, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Though no demographic group is immune to such suffering, the majority of this book’s contributors are people of color (eight are African American) who were born poor.

The introduction will touch briefly on the socioeconomic implications of their experiences, but Sacred Shelter’s overriding objectives is much more personal it aims to give its formerly homeless contributors an opportunity to narrate their autobiographies in their own terms and to celebrate their whole sense of their lives. Homelessness is obviously an important issue in Sacred Shelter, and the book bears witness to the resilience and faith involved in overcoming it. Nevertheless the loves the contributors recount are much larger than their former homelessness. They include periods of joy as well as torment, and often the narratives reflect the contributor’s deep belief in the restorative love of God.

Sacred Shelter also aims to capture something of the workings and the collective spirit of the life skills empowerment program. This introduction, as well as the two concluding entries, include details about the program’s origins and history, throughout the book, some of the professionals and volunteers who have run or participated in the program reflect on their experiences. Their worlds are interspersed with the life stories to reflect the kind of larger community the program helps create. In the life skills empowerment program, the boundaries that typically separate homeless people from the housed can be challenged and traversed. For individuals in the program becoming part of a life skills empowerment community, can be healing and transformative. This is true not just for the homeless or formerly homeless people who attend the program, but also for those who participate in other ways. It has certainly been true for the author. This is a book worth reading for all who are on a journey with God.


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