Practising Her Activism

Aware that location was a sensitive issue, the dedicated group began to scour the city until they found a long, narrow building on Union Street that needed some renovations and was owned by a very helpful landlord. Despite their initial enthusiasm, the realities connected with sustaining such an operation began to hit home. "This is 'put your money where your mouth is'," said Carolyn, remembering the moment: "This is grow-up time." The Good Shepherd Community generously took care of the first rent payment and experienced volunteers were enlisted to help clean, paint, and get the house ready to open. These people who contributed essential frontline experience became the first Board of Directors for what was expected to be a challenging operation.

Growing the services

The house on Union Street offered soup, sandwiches, sweets, and coffee and tea seven days a week. After a few years, a larger building was needed and found on Water Street, and services were once again expanded and funding challenges weathered. But a move was again necessary when expensive maintenance conditions were going to be imposed. Also there was a need for more space that would also be easier to keep clean.

A plan was hatched to adapt a dismantled bank building for their use; however, this turned out to be unfeasible. So after seven-and-a-half years of using existing buildings, it was decided to build from scratch. How to make this happen with little funds was the question that sent Carolyn to Saint John's West Side to have a frank conversation with the building trades brotherhood about her dream:

So now I need to ask you trades people, if we have the land, would you put this place together? My Lord! They said, yes, they would!

A retired engineer offered his services to oversee project construction, and Carolyn became the cheque writer and collector of donations from generous citizens and organizations. Usually she had just enough or a little more to cover each cheque as the project progressed, but during the occasional funding crisis, trades people would donate their time and skills. An extra value-added dimension crept into the proceedings:

The plumbers wanted to do a better job than the carpenters and the carpenters wanted to a better job than the electricians. In 1990, they built this building on Brunswick Drive without any clashes or fights between the different unions.

No time was wasted in starting operations: "I moved in from Water Street at night and in the morning we served the meal here," she recalled. And the building was debt-free."

All too soon, more storage and office spaces were needed as the demand for services increased again. Carefully timed public fund-raising, boosted by bequests, was launched. Carolyn says their philosophy has always been to "ask when we're needy, not greedy—there's a fine line there." Local architects generously gave their time to plan the service additions and adapt new space in acquired adjacent buildings.

Romero House services

Today, Romero House's paid staff of six prepares and serves 300 meals daily over 365 days each year, and 100 volunteers rotate services to provide the person-power needed to accomplish everything they undertake. The community at large donates the supplies. In addition to the daily full meal, RH offers clothing, educational activities such as preparation for high school equivalency (GED), and informal English classes. It also provides emergency food supplies, and winter night trips in the RH motor home offer temporary respite and warming drinks and snacks for those who cannot find shelter elsewhere in the months from November to March.

The staff and supporters of RH are kept fully occupied seeking ongoing funding and remaining independent in all operations. There are approximately 200 homeless people who sleep in cars and "couch-surf," with access only to shelter beds, who are at risk and living in unspeakable conditions.

Principles for running Romero House

Everything to do with crisis for these people is now. You don't do it next week. Right now is when we've got to do something… There is no room for judgement if you are in the care services for human beings.

  • Allow people the dignity of coming to Romero House on their own rather than running after them.
  • "We're not trying to reconstruct a person's life, we're trying to treat people in a humane way so that they become more a part of the community."
  • If RH staff cannot meet all the needs of a client, they always do something for them. At the very least, they listen to their stories.
  • Respect for others is an absolute rule that is always in operation. It applies to clients and staff alike: "Do not get into somebody else's space"—literally or psychologically—is the rule of thumb.
  • Do not use RH funds to advertise—there is no need.
  • Regarding government assistance, avoid accepting any funding with strings attached. The government should be giving but RH avoids being put in a position of being dependent on them.
  • Never under any circumstances allow politicians to use RH clients as a pawn. Any politician who wishes to visit must come after public hours when no clients are present. Carolyn explains:

    They come here in election times with a case of beans on their shoulder, and that's their answer to poverty. The only critical thinking that's been done, in my opinion, in 30 years about the problems we tackle is done before elections or when something really hot is happening at City Hall and they want to divert attention to the panhandlers or to poverty.

  • Allow the media to come in but only under the conditions of fully-informed and free-to-refuse consent by clients and staff. There is to be no sensationalizing of client stories.
  • Stay out of debt and keep RH's financial affairs in order. When Carolyn pays the bills at the first of the month, everything is paid completely.
  • Cleanliness is the strictest rule at RH for obvious reason of avoiding illness.

    It is our philosophy that everyone is deserving of a nice place to go. Romero House belongs to the Saint John Community and is a reflection of the same.

Ongoing challenges

The primary challenge for Carolyn is the demand to live in two worlds at once: the difficult world of those she serves at Romero House, and the world of her extended, middle-class family. The extreme disparity between these worlds has been very difficult to accept, let alone navigate.

Carolyn emphasizes that the clients of RH love their children and families as much as anyone, and if they "fall short, it's not because they don't love their children" but because they may not know how to manage and do not have the resources to do so in a way that is beneficial for the child.

There is a whole chain of things: a man loses his job, he's not educated to get another job, he's on welfare, the in-laws are second generation poor, they live in small places, the husband and wife are fighting, each of them living in their own way, the children are there and there is incest created by that and every imaginable thing you can think of. Have I ever lived like that? No. How do I know that? From my experience.

The second challenge she identifies is the current "blame and punishment model" rather than one of self-development and support regarding the treatment of children who necessarily live inside their parents' poverty. Carolyn feels strongly that labelling as "child poverty" what is a complex social problem not only adds onus to what feels like an insurmountable problem, but ignores the child's need for a network of relationships and dependence on family and community to become a successful, independent adult.

Carolyn further argues that children do not have access to funds for living, as adults do; nor can they receive government subsistence to improve their financial situation; nor does the child's family receive adequate help. The consequent problem is that government regulations result in children being removed from their families to guardians' care and their families being ordered to improve conditions and resources before the child is allowed to return. She points out the consequence when neither solution works as the child grows into early teenage years:

Such children are in Never-Never Land because they're just marking time until they are old enough to get out of the system, and the system is not responsible for them anymore. Depending on how bad the situation is, the children are being kicked from pillar to post. They're so injured that they can never be anything but dysfunctional.

The third major challenge in Carolyn's view is the lack of common sense she encounters as she tries to educate the community about various social problems and appropriate solutions.

Most people who are in a position to make decisions don't get it, no matter how much you say. They don't want to hear how you explain the challenges because they never thought of it and they don't want to think about that because they have already got their course of action laid out.

The fourth major challenge is housing. According to Carolyn, the situation in Saint John is "atrocious," and she provides examples that support this view. Romero House has helped a family of four children who sleep in a van all summer because they can't afford rent and have nowhere to go, for instance; and it's helped people who have been put out of their homes while landlords restore the building, only to find that when they return to a beautiful new apartment, the rent has suddenly been raised without warning to $900 unheated. Such people have nowhere to go but Romero House. Electricity bills keep rising while incomes do not, and Carolyn cites the statistic of 277 families having electricity cut in a single cold month; RH received numerous requests to help pay the bills. The funding for this sort of crisis may not be available during winter when the priority must be to keep the RH building open and pay staff.

And finally, the fifth major challenge relates to adolescent males with mental problems or socially dysfunctional behaviours. Twenty arrive at RH every day without any monitoring or supervision, so their condition deteriorates. Then RH must curb their anti-social ways while trying to help:

They cover up in layers and layers of clothes because they don't want to be seen, they don't like themselves and no-one ever told them that they're worth anything. You get out there and get talking to them and you find that they have a beauty of their own… your heart bleeds for them, and then you have to bring the hammer down; you have to bring the discipline.

Highlights

Sometimes you get depressed in this type of work—of course you do. So you look for those moments when you see something miraculous happening—and it happens so often here that it brings you right up when you see the success of some of them. The success is not high, but when somebody does succeed, and they return and bring their family with them or whatever they've been able to manage to build in the years they've been away, and they say, "I've told them this was a lifesaver for me and I've brought them here today because we want to give back," well, that just puts me right on the floor and a lot of us are the same way. It's worth it.

My mind is not cluttered. My goal is very clear and I do have the strength to do what is necessary when I have to do it. Sometimes I don't look forward to it; a lot of the time it's not easy.