Angelo Boer became program director of ODB and Christopher Place when Sr. Josanna left. When he took over the program, the people involved all felt that ODB was a short-term response to a hunger issue and that the program would not be needed for long.
“It’s incredible how the issues have become much larger today, though food is still part of the problem. Even while I was still there [at ODBEC],” Angelo remembered, “I became aware of the working poor’s inability to afford healthy food. I saw people coming in wearing hard hats, so I knew they were working and on their lunch breaks, trying to find ways to stretch their paychecks. We never saw that in the early days. Homelessness has become a more important part of the big picture, too.”
At ODB, volunteers serve the meals to guests. “We have always provided more than a meal; we serve people with dignity, and that is equally as important as the food we provide. We never served cafeteria style. Sr. Josanna insisted that our guests be treated with respect,” Angelo said.
As unemployment and homelessness became more prevalent among ODB guests, the Christopher Place program evolved. Christopher Place started as an emergency shelter; it had 32 beds for overnight stays but received as many as 150 men per day. It was the only day shelter where homeless people could come and get a shower and do laundry. Health Care for the Homeless started there, so the men could receive health care. By the early 1990s, other shelters provided similar day services, so Christopher Place developed the Employment Academy, added employment counselors and a full-time residential program.
Angelo hired Sr. Gwynette Proctor as the first director of Christopher Place Employment Academy (CPEA). She had been a school principal before she came to CPEA, so she structured the Academy after a school curriculum. Her first curriculum was focused on supporting employment, and she described the first employment academy as an “educational program with a residential component that supported addiction recovery for formerly homeless men.”
To plan the curriculum, she recalled, “I visited transitional housing programs, but they didn’t deal with work or recovery. The employment centers I visited didn’t deal with housing or recovery. I realized that to have a truly effective program, we needed to include all three elements so each man could be successful.”
Most of the men who enrolled had been homeless for years and were not used to living on any sort of schedule. Sr. Gwynette made sure they dressed in clean, neat clothes and arrived at work on time. The classroom work portion of the program lasted three months and included instruction on anger management skills, workplace behavior and financial literacy. It also had an addictions counselor on staff. After three months, the men started employment. They had to save 80% of what they earned so they could save $3,000 or more by the time they graduated.
Sr. Gwynette recalled, “After the first class completed their classroom skills portion of the program, we held a job fair for employers. It took some time to convince employers to participate, but by the time I left seven years later – and saw 14 classes of men graduate – we had 20-25 employers who were regular participants. Employers were willing to take a chance and partner with us. They were anxious to find reliable employees, and I knew we could provide them.”
“The CPEA men brought me their paychecks for deposit, and when their savings exceeded $1000, then $2000, etc., they were astonished, then overjoyed. In this structured and supportive environment, they flourished despite anything they had done in the past. For me, seeing this was particularly joyful.”
“People came for all kinds of reasons. We were always looking forward, not backward. We saw so many transformations; it was unbelievable. Those years there were such a blessing to me,” Sr. Gwynette said.