CSS: Providing homes, hope
By DAVID MYERS
Southwest Kansas Register
A buzz sounded in the lobby of the century-old house that serves as the main offices for Catholic Social Service in Dodge City.
Inside, Maria Gutierrez pressed a button and a young, haggard looking man pulled open the large, wooden door.
“He was 19 or 20,” said Maria, a program assistant for CSS. Each day, Maria helps people and families who are homeless, or on the verge of homelessness, to find residence. But this was different. This man wasn’t looking for a home.
“He came in, and I could tell he wasn’t doing well. He said he was working at a lumber yard and hadn’t had a paycheck for two weeks. He had no money for gas to go to work.”
The man was staying at Manna House, which offers temporary housing for those in transition. His only daily meal was at Friendship Feast, a free lunch served at First Presbyterian Church, but there were days when his hours interfered with Friendship Feast hours, so he’d go the whole day with no food.
“It broke my heart,” Maria said, fighting back tears. “He was a really nice kid. He’d been in foster care all his life, and now that he was over 18, he had nowhere to go.
“I asked him to come back in one hour,” Maria explained. “We put together a $50 gas card, but it wouldn’t put food on his table. I knew I would not sleep knowing that he didn’t have money for food, so I put $80 in the envelope. I wrote a note that said, ‘I know things aren’t good, but things will get better. I’m praying for you.’
“Two days later I got a letter back: ‘Thank you. I was feeling lost and lonely,’ he wrote. He let me know what the note did for him. He said he’d pray for us.”
Like others working for Catholic Social Service offices in Dodge City, Great Bend and Garden City, Maria embodies both an analytical mind and a compassionate spirit, so that she can, at one moment, help someone through the complex network of forms to acquire housing, while the next, offering her time to simply drive someone to school or to apply for a job.
Prior to working for CSS, Maria was a para-professional at Bright Beginnings, working with preschool through kindergarten pupils. In college, she hoped to study criminal law with an interest in social work, when she and her husband, Carlos, became parents of Abril.
At CSS, she serves as case manager for the housing program, as well as the “Marriage for Keeps” and “Within my Reach” programs, which are designed to strengthen relationships, whether in marriage or at the work place.
“I also help people who come in the door. They come in all day. The may need help with food stamps, filling out a job application, or they may need some baby clothes or formula.”
Maria isn’t in the office much. Many of her clients lack transportation, so Maria goes to them. For some, it’s delivering goods such as diapers or baby food. Others may need a ride somewhere, perhaps to a job interview. Still others need her help in navigating a sea of paperwork to move into a home that Maria personally picked out for them.
The HUD-based housing program, Southwest Kansas Transitional Housing Program, is a two-year program for homeless or at risk of homelessness individuals and families. If they are approved, they receive two years of rental payment on a home chosen by CSS through HUD.
“I go through the application and see if they’re a good candidate,” Maria said. “If they are, then I have to go out and find a house that’s right for them. They have to have an income because they pay for utilities. I’ll sit down and work on their budget. It’s a really good program. We furnish the apartment for them, beds, cribs, whatever they need.”
The family will have a set of goals that they must keep, such as searching out and finding health care for their family, having their children in Bright Beginnings, and taking part in the “Marriage for Keeps” and “Within my Reach” relationship building program. “Within my Reach” is for single people.
“I love it,” she said of her job at Catholic Social Service. “I don’t think I could ever end up in a better job. I love what I do.”
Maria’s counterpart at the Garden City CSS office is Brooke Hamlin-Lopez. Besides serving as Family Support Specialist for Marriage for Keeps, she works with Seeds of Hope Jail Ministry, for which she teaches relationship skills to those incarcerated at the Finney County Jail. The program provides inmates with relationship-building skills, so that they will be better equipped to return to their spouse, adapt to a new job, or to build a new, personal relationship.
Along with Seeds of Hope, Brooke works with SCRIMP (Second Chance Reentry Initiative Mentoring Program), a grass-roots effort initiated by volunteers from the Seeds of Hope Jail Ministry to help repeat offenders stay out of jail through education, mentoring, and case management.
The program, she said, is a natural extension of the relationship skills classes that she teaches at the Finney County Jail.
The goal of the program is to reduce the revocation rate (offenders who don’t complete their probation successfully) by 20 percent.
The program, she said, allows inmates to “look at their own morals and goals in order to help them find a good mate. But it also works well with people in relationships, because we talk about expectations, the danger signs of relationships, and problem behaviors.
“We are trying to reach the low-income population,” Brooke explained. “Strengthening marriages and families is one of the ways to break the cycle of poverty. We knew that there was a strong correlation between low income and incarceration. So, our idea was that by teaching relationship skills in jail, offenders would be ready to transition into a Marriage for Keeps class with their wives when they got out of jail. The classes in jail help them to focus on themselves; the classes with their wives help them to focus on their relationship together.”
Prior to being hired for CSS in 2007, Brooke, who is married to Ruben and mother to a 10-year-old son, Marcus, served as a probation officer.
Whether it’s finding homes for the homeless, helping couples and individuals to build relationships, or aiding inmates or those recently released to better adapt to their new life, Brooke says, “I feel like I am rewarded everyday helping those in need.”
Editor’s Note: Some of this article was taken directly from the Diocese of Dodge City CSS website.