A Home for Those Without One

Author: Deanna Csomo McCool

Centerforthehomeless Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

A few years ago, Betty Hamilton was at her wits’ end. It was mid-November, the nights were getting colder and she was living in her car. Something had to change.

Hamilton had earned a doctoral degree in plant physiology from Oklahoma State University and had lived in the South Bend area for years. In the 1990s she worked as an educational horticultural specialist at Fernwood Botanical Garden near Niles, Michigan, after years of studying how the membranes of dry seeds react when water enters them.

Despite her career as a researcher at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Michigan State universities, she describes her life as isolated. By her mid-60s, she had few social contacts, and, fearing a break-in of the run-down home where she lived alone, she took to her car, where she felt safer. She spent her days talking with servers at restaurants and clerks at stores, and she recognized that her life had become as unhealthy as the nights were cold.

One night, she drove up to South Bend’s Center for the Homeless on South Michigan Street. It looked warm at a time when she needed warmth most. Hamilton, now 70, didn’t know what would happen when she stepped inside, but she has never regretted her decision.

“The thing to remember is that people who become homeless very often become that way because of things that are not in their control,” Hamilton says. “A business goes bust, or a business downsizes; or there are multiple things — a woman here lost her mother and then had a car wreck, and it put her in a situation where she became homeless.”

The Center for the Homeless has, since its 1988 founding, helped its guests rise from their varied situations through a combination of shelter, services and training. Though it is now seen worldwide as a model for what a shelter should be, its beginnings were quite humble.

During the 1980s, Father Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, ’63, ’67M.A., ’69M.A., then president of Notre Dame, had been working with city officials and business leaders to determine how to improve the town-and-gown relationship. And Father David Link, CSC, ’58, ’61J.D., then dean of the law school, and D’Arcy Chisholm ’56, the assistant director of the Institute for Pastoral and Social Ministry (now the   McGrath Institute for Church Life), had been voluntarily running a homeless shelter in the basement of a church, the Maranatha Temple.

They saw the need for a better place for the operation, because the basement was mostly a place for guests to crash for the night and eat doughnuts in the morning. Link and Chisholm combined $15,000 of their personal funds and planned to apply for assistance from a national foundation to buy the then-defunct Gilbert’s clothing store, across the street from the existing shelter.

“I was sitting with D’Arcy and said, ‘I think we’d better tell Father Malloy what we’re doing, because this is going to appear in the newspaper, and he’s going to think we’re crazy,’” Link remembers.

When they presented their proposal, Malloy considered it briefly.

“He said, ‘I often wonder about whether we should invest in South Africa, but one thing I do know for sure is that we ought to be investing in our own community,’” Link recalls. “He asked, ‘How would you feel if Notre Dame became a partner in this?’”

Malloy approached Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees with a suggestion to buy that building across the street and lease it to the new South Bend Center for the Homeless for $1 a year, according to Link. City officials and other organizations eagerly supported the idea.

Malloy names others that chipped in at the time, including the local Junior League, churches, other charitable groups and residents. “We never wanted it to be a Notre Dame place — we wanted it to be shared with others,” he says.

The center was dedicated in November 1988 and open at first for nighttime use only. But one month later, a fire ravaged the residential Morningside Hotel in downtown South Bend, killing one person, injuring others and leaving more than 100 people homeless. So the new center was forced into immediate 24-hour service to house the displaced. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly ready, according to Lou Nanni ’84, ’88M.A., now Notre Dame’s vice president for university relations.

Nanni would soon be handpicked by Malloy to take the role of executive director after a succession of four leaders within the center’s first two years. By then the center was developing a reputation for violence and other problems with employees who had their own issues, Nanni says. One kitchen worker was caught selling 16 turkeys to fuel his own addictions; another employee was arrested for prostitution.

“We had a maintenance worker who bought a lawnmower with shelter money,” Nanni says. “But there wasn’t a bit of grass on the property.”

In his late 20s, the energetic and idealistic new director with the bright eyes and curly hair was appearing on television news programs, fundraising for the center and drumming up local pride. When he started, he hoped to last just six months. The center had an operating budget of $200,000, but was $100,000 in debt.

“I worked harder than I ever had before, and a year later, through my sheer determination, we were $140,000 in debt,” he quips.

Though it took about five years for the center to become solvent, the budget rocketed from $200,000 to $2 million during Nanni’s eight years at the helm.

He likes to share that message of struggle and rebound with guests like Betty Hamilton. So often, as people get closer to their goals, they take two steps back. That doesn’t mean it’s time to give up, he says.

“You may be dedicated to turning things around, and then have health issues, relationship troubles, other struggles,” he says. “This is when you’ve got to persevere; you can’t focus just on the outcomes, but on the inputs. Keep your focus on that.”

A few years after its quick launch into full service, the center was upheld as a national model, earning a visit from Henry Cisneros, then the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and TV personality Regis Philbin ’53, among others. Nanni was invited to give talks in Honolulu and Ottawa, Ontario — and everywhere in between.

He suddenly realized he had the power to get things done. He worried: How would he, and others at the center, not get caught up in the trappings of temporal success? How would they not lose their souls?

“So I took off and spent 48 hours on the streets of Chicago,” he says. He stayed at a couple of shelters and understood how humbling it felt to walk inside and not know whether the places were safe. Or if they were poorly run. His journey “was a great reminder of why some stay on the streets,” he says.

Nanni believes it doesn’t matter what services are offered if a shelter does not resuscitate hope. Driving or walking through a downtrodden part of a city can be spirit-crushing enough. Entering a shelter shouldn’t demoralize guests even further.

“If there are Rodins to be sculpted and Rembrandts to be painted, they should be hanging at the Center for the Homeless,” says Nanni, who describes his role at the center these days as “sporadic volunteer.”

Providing hope and inspiration doesn’t mean, of course, that old-fashioned values and “tough love” don’t go hand-in-hand with the necessary dose of compassion. Nanni and the current director, Steve Camilleri ’94, ’01MSA — two in the line of center heads who all have been Notre Dame alumni — meet for lunch frequently and talk about everything from the traditional programs that help with mental health, addictions and job readiness to several new initiatives and goals for the roughly 250 guests the center serves each year.

“There are some solid programs that still exist, but what has changed over time are the needs of guests,” Camilleri says.

For instance, the Robert L. Miller Sr. Veteran’s Center, a separate building on the Center for the Homeless campus, opened in 2011. It can house up to 24 male homeless military veterans, who can obtain treatment, clothes and meals and receive plenty of support as they process post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues. Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn ’07 promotes the project because of his interest in helping veterans and military families.

Quinn’s experience of volunteering at the center with his football teammates stuck with him. “This is one of the reasons a lot of players and other students came to Notre Dame — to give back to the greater good,” he says. In 2011, he founded the 3rd & Goal Foundation to offer support to veterans because he was inspired by his father, who served in Vietnam.

Quinn, Camilleri and Carl Ackermann, who teaches finance at Notre Dame, eventually collaborated to create a personal finance program for veterans. The program has expanded to cover other topics including computer skills, nutrition, organization and stress relief. It’s called the Developing Readiness in Veterans’ Experience program, or DRIVE.

“Our biggest mission in creating the DRIVE program was to provide a curriculum that would help veterans break the cycle of homelessness and dependence,” Quinn says. “We wanted to equip them with the tools to support themselves and break any prior bad habits — ‘driving’ them to become better versions of themselves.”

The veterans’ center, and all other Center for the Homeless programs, operate with a better understanding of post-traumatic stress than when it opened. “We have shifted language and culture over time,” Camilleri says.

Notre Dame students, faculty and staff have been involved as mentors and volunteers from the beginning, and that trauma-informed lens is one that Nancy Michael, assistant teaching professor of neuroscience and behavior in Notre Dame’s Department of Biological Sciences, champions. Some of her students teach a crash course in brain development for families who live at the center.

The four-week program is tailored to residents’ needs and seeks to inform parents about how the brain develops, why it’s important to talk to babies, when to chat with their adolescents and how to control their own stress responses.

“The moms take all the stuff they have learned, and it empowers them,” Michael says. “No one knows children better than their primary caretakers.”

The presence of the center in South Bend is crucial, Michael notes, because at any time, 40 percent of the local population is living in — or at risk of living in — poverty. That risk is greater now with the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering businesses and reducing families’ wages.

Not only is the center important for guests, but it’s an important reminder for students and others to know that anyone might someday need the services of a shelter, Malloy says.

“I wish we didn’t have to have a Center for the Homeless,” he says. “But a lot of lives have been saved, and a lot of people have put their lives back together.”

He likes to share a story about two volunteers from Notre Dame who went to Atlanta to interview guests at a shelter. They heard stories about mental illness, job losses and family dysfunction. Two of the guests were Notre Dame graduates.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” Malloy says.

The situation is one Betty Hamilton knows well from her own experiences and those of others she’s met at the center. She isn’t waiting for her situation to improve; she has taken charge. She has honed a new passion — quilting — and plans to make money by creating a coloring book of quilt designs. She’s been drawing in earnest, and is looking to market her book idea soon.

“Coming here has allowed me to learn how my life was damaged, and how the hurts happened to me, and helped me find meaning in them,” Hamilton says. “Therapy helped, and I read books about loss, and there was a point where tears ran down my face when I finally understood what caused me such pain.”

Deanna Csomo McCool is assistant director of marketing communications in the College of Science.