For many of the chronically homeless in Memphis, Door of Hope represents the final step in a long and painful journey. The organization serves an ever-expanding and disenfranchised element of the local community, which is now being inundated with issues more complex than a lack of shelter or fiscal disintegration.Andrew Jacuzzi, Executive Director of Door of Hope confirms that the majority of homeless citizens served by DOH hail from Midtown and Downtown Memphis. “There are plenty of homeless here,” Jacuzzi says. “Our outreach workers will go into these areas to build relationships and to invite the homeless into our support center. We start right away to find them help, whatever the need.”Through grants from the federal government and the City of Memphis, assistance offered by Door of Hope includes everything from accessing medical care and permanent housing to determining eligibility for available benefits. Assistance can be as simple as restoring personal identification. “Many of the people we serve have been out on the street for so long…they’ve lost their wallets; they’ve lost every social attachment,” says Jacuzzi. “They really are invisible.”The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a chronically homeless person as one who has been without shelter for a year and suffers from a disability.
Moreover, anyone who has experienced four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period is also considered to be chronically homeless.“The root cause for chronic homelessness varies with every individual,” Jacuzzi says. “If you lose your job and don’t have money saved…you lose your apartment. If you don’t have family to support you…it is a quick spiral downhill. Once you hit bottom, you look for whatever comfort you can find…and often that’s drugs and alcohol.” To this equation, add the myriad disabilities that often accompany chronic homelessness. Jacuzzi maintains the gamut of disabilities range from the abuse of drugs and alcohol to any number of crippling physical and mental problems.
He cites depression and severe schizophrenia as two of the most prominent disabilities afflicting the guests of Door of Hope. “We even have people who have been homeless for so long they suffer from frostbite and must have part of their feet amputated,” he says.Without raising his voice, Jacuzzi addresses a failing system. “People go to the MED and get the work done…but once they are released, they are still homeless. Many we serve have been through every organization and shelter and have outgrown their welcome. DOH is their last chance.”In his seven years as Executive Director, Jacuzzi estimates that more than 90 percent of the approximately 500 guests served by Door of Hope have successfully re-entered society and are now thriving. May 2013 marked the sixth anniversary of the Door of Hope Creative Writing Program, a service offered by Door of Hope that aids in the resurrection and repair of the human voice.Ellen Prewitt is a volunteer facilitator at Door of Hope and one of the innovators behind the creative writing program. “We are a writing group that comes together on a weekly basis to share our thoughts and feelings with each other in a supportive environment,” she says. When detailing the evolution of the program, Prewitt is candid and soft-spoken.
“I was in a class at the Memphis School for leadership,” she reminisces. “They asked class participants to develop relationships with those people who had been made poor and pushed to the margins of society. I could not figure out a way to do this that didn’t seem false.”Prewitt considered the idea of just wandering up to any person who would fit these criteria to be a condescending proposition. “What am I gonna do? Just say ‘Hey, you’ve been made poor and abandoned by society and I need to build a relationship with you?’” One day in class, a student made a suggestion. “Ellen, you yak so much about writing…you need to go start a writing program at Door of Hope.” The fellow student in question was the Reverend Joe Porter of Grace St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Midtown Memphis. “Grace St. Luke’s is one of the churches that helped found Door of Hope,” explains Prewitt. “When the Reverend made the suggestion…I thought to myself ‘Well, this I can do.’”It is not quite the Algonquin Round Table or a presidential cabinet meeting, but every Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m. sharp, the community dining room is transformed into a forum of creative writing and a collaboration of language.
One by one, each member of the group grasps to find their voices once again, one word at a time. And with a grand eloquence, these renewed voices are redefining the concepts of forgiveness and gratitude.The Advocate: A Voice of Experience is a free newsletter written and published by participants of the creative writing program and offered to everyone as a service of Door of Hope. In one of the more recent issues, contributing writer and Door of Hope guest Cynthia Crawford, who is struggling to return to society as a mother of four children, posts an original piece titled “My Forever Valentine”:“Are you in a mess? God will bless! So don’t hate. Just wait! God didn't promise us a smooth road. But He will help carry your load.”At Door of Hope, this idea and others, which so negatively affect a guest’s social and spiritual demeanor, are lovingly and attentively chiseled away. Crawford, as well as everyone who participates in the creative writing program at the Door of Hope, is learning to live a full and productive life alit with simple truth.
Door of Hope
A window of opportunity for the chronically homeless in Memphis
Story By Eugene Pidgeon