Catholic Worker house aims to help those in need

[Source: “Catholic Worker house aims to help those in need,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, 15 August 2016, by Andy Davis]

One month after opening Iowa City’s first Catholic Worker House, a three-bedroom house on Sycamore Street that will provide up to 30 days of shelter for those in need, David Goodner said the house already is full.

Goodner, a live-in volunteer at the 1414 Sycamore Street house, at the beginning of the month officially opened the house with the help of fellow volunteer Emily Sinnwell. The two already are providing shelter to two recently-released prisoners and a single mother with two teenage sons.

While the Catholic Worker House is new to Iowa City, it is not a new concept. In 1933, the Catholic Worker movement was founded by Dorothy Day in New York City.

“Dorothy Day, during the height of the Great Depression, basically created a decentralized network of Catholic that, instead of relying on becoming a nonprofit organization, is a more decentralized volunteer-base network model,” Goodner said.

Since its founding, the movement has spread internationally. This year, the The Phil Berrigan House — the Catholic Worker house in Des Moines where Goodner had lived and volunteered for six years and where Sinnwell had volunteered since high school — celebrates its 40th anniversary.

The basic philosophy of the Catholic Worker is based on what are called the works of mercy, Goodner said, which include: house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, speak truth to power and bear witness to injustice.

“The idea is to ask: if Jesus was alive today, where would we find him? He would probably be with the single mother, or in the face of the homeless war veteran. If he was living in Iowa City today, that’s where you’d find Jesus,” Goodner said.

Per city code, guests are not able to stay more than 30 days, Goodner said, but can use that time to save money and “get back on their feet and back into the world.”

Sinnwell, a nurse practitioner who is finishing a psychiatric fellowship at the Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, splits her time between Iowa City and Des Moines. She said once renovations are done at the Iowa City house, the plan is to open the house on the weekends to allow the homeless or those in need a place to shower, eat, use the phone, get a haircut or simple medical help.

“Our goal is to live simply and provide hospitality and be welcoming and let people know there’s a place they can come,” she said.

Growing rapidly

Goodner said before the Iowa City Catholic Workers bought the house on July 1, they spent their time working with the city to see if the house could be opened. Goodner and other supporters began talking to local congregations to round up donations and volunteers. To date, he and Sinnwell have brought more than 250 volunteers and raised over $75,000.

He said they also work with other area service agencies like Shelter House and the Salvation Army. The two prisoners who currently have shelter at the house come from the Inside-OUT Re-Entry Program.

“Emily and I are really just bottom lining everything and organizing everything, but it’s much bigger than us. A lot of the people that are showing up are referrals from other agencies,” Goodner said.

Donations were used to make a $40,000 down payment on the house. Future donations will be used to make renovations and cover costs as needed.

“In addition to the money we’ve raised, we’ve also gotten furniture. Somebody gave us a piano, all the beds in the house, people have been bringing in food. We’ve already established a pretty substantial supply chain,” Goodner said.

Lee Mickey, a parishioner at the St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Coralville, said she was happy to know the movement was coming to Iowa City and already has been working to help the cause.

Mickey said she has contributed financially to the Catholic Worker house, but also has donated bedding, towels and rugs.

“I thought it was very important that everybody has bedding or towels for showers. I feel like I’m just one person in many because a lot of my friends have said they are certainly ready to help out when the need arises,” Mickey said. “I feel lucky I’ve never had that sort of problem in my life, but I really appreciate that this is what Catholic Worker houses do; They fill a need for people who are homeless or who are in transition.

“To have a house like that in Iowa City, and to have David oversee it, it’s just really important and it’s just something that, until you see the happiness on their faces and how they speak about having the opportunity to get on with their life is just wonderful.”

Looking to expand

Goodner said at this stage the house and his efforts are fairly small, but hopes to eventually buy more properties and open more Catholic Worker houses. He also hopes to eventually offer weekend meals, meal deliveries and a community potluck during which residents can cook food in the house and enjoy meals with guests.

“We’re always raising our capacity and maturing as an institution and, especially with the size we are now in Iowa City, a lot of the things we try and introduce will be phased in,” Goodner said.

Sinnwell said the house already has had to turn potential guests away. She said she and Goodner have been able to provide money for hotel stays for a few people who have approached them, but the fact that the Catholic Worker house already has more requests than it rooms illustrates the need.

“There’s an obvious need in Iowa City whether we’re aware of it or not. Our goal isn’t to solve the housing crisis by any means, just to help people be aware of it and be active in helping fill in the gaps where we can,” she said.