No Room for the Innkeeper
Brother Louis Rodemann doesn’t ask his visitors how they ended up hungry and penniless as they pass through his door at Holy Family House on 31st Street. He doesn’t check for criminal backgrounds before he serves them dinner from his kitchen six nights a week.
Like Dorothy Day — who in 1933 founded the Catholic Worker Movement, to which he belongs — Rodemann believes in the God-given dignity of every person. He says his “house of hospitality” just feeds the people who show up cold and weary at his door. Then he sends them on their way.
“Our philosophy is that everyone deserves something to eat,” he says. “If they’ve spent their lives in prisons or mental hospitals, we don’t say they can’t have a plate of food because of that.”
But some residents of the Longfellow neighborhood (bordered by Troost to the east, Gillham to the west, 25th Street to the north, and 31st Street to the south) say Holy Family’s diners aren’t moving along fast enough — or far enough — after receiving their free meals.
“Those people defecate in the back alleys,” says Parris Twillman, president of the Longfellow Neighborhood Association. They sleep in yards and empty garages, she says, and litter the streets with empty liquor bottles. In 1997, a man who frequented the Holy Family House broke into a home and raped an 84-year-old woman.
Twillman insists that Holy Family’s dinner guests are involved with drugs and prostitution and that the Catholic Worker House is a stopping-off place for people just out of prison. At the very least, she says, Rodemann should exercise discretion about whom he takes in for dinner.
As the evening temperature hovers just above zero, men and women in dirty sweaters and worn coats make their way toward the Holy Family House. Some emerge from the shadows of snow-packed alleys. Others walk down Campbell or Charlotte, the residential streets on either side of the house. Two girls race up the house’s front steps, giggling, as their mother trails behind. Gradually, a line forms and stretches halfway across the front yard.
Lights glow through Holy Family’s windows, and inside, the aroma of baked ham fills the rooms. Outside, the wind picks up, and hungry people jam cracked fingers deep into their pockets. At 6 p.m., Rodemann opens the door, and the line moves slowly toward supper.
Holy Family House, which has been in the neighborhood for 26 years, is both a soup kitchen and an emergency shelter, housing up to three families. The house operates solely on donations from local grocery stores, individuals, and agencies. In keeping with the Catholic Worker philosophy laid out when the movement started during the Great Depression, Rodemann lives a life of voluntary poverty. His kitchen, staffed by volunteers, serves dinner for roughly 150 people each night.
But as the property values in Longfellow go up, tolerance for Rodemann’s dinner guests grows thin.
The Longfellow neighborhood once comprised mainly apartment buildings and homes owned by seniors who couldn’t afford to move away from inner-city crime. Now many homeowners in the neighborhood are single professionals and young couples with children. With the evolving demographic, property values have increased, and many of the homes’ values easily hit the $100,000 mark.
Longfellow is a good neighborhood, says Jim Collins, who has lived there for 10 years. However, he believes Holy Family House makes the neighborhood unsafe. Collins once chased a man out of his basement who had broken a window and bedded down on the floor, he says. He assumes that the man came from Holy Family House.
“Brother Louis feeds anybody who can fall through his door,” says Collins. “They can be stinking drunk, high as a kite, and he still lets them in. These are the same people the Salvation Army and the City Union Mission turn away because they won’t let them act that way.”
But Holy Family has rules, Rodemann says: “If they’re drunk or high, vulgar, or derogatory in any way, they have to come to the back door and get their dinner to go.”
It’s not just the behavior that troubles Collins, however.
“These are not people who are homeless because they lost their job and couldn’t make the mortgage payment,” says Collins. “These people have chosen to live a substandard life and are happy with what they can get.”
Collins’ appraisal may hold true for some of Holy Family’s guests. Bloodshot eyes and shaking hands suggest that some diners might gladly trade dinner for a rock of crack or a bottle of Thunderbird. But others’ lives are not that simply defined.
“There are some unsavory people that come here,” says Pat, who sits alone at a long table by the wall. She recently moved back into her house after completing a 10-week program at a local battered women’s shelter. She points to her 10-year-old son across the room. “If it hadn’t been for the Holy Family House, he and I wouldn’t have made it.”
David, a homeless man, admits that when it gets too cold, he’ll check himself into a drug treatment program so he can have a place to sleep.
Lisa, who has been coming to the Holy Family house off and on for 12 years, says she quit paying her rent after the ceiling in her apartment fell in on her two girls. The meager wage she earns as a porter at a used car dealership doesn’t go far. Now she and her kids live in a motel with her husband, who has too much pride to come to a soup kitchen.
Rodemann notes that a homeless person’s day is quite different from that of a homeowner.
“A homeless person has to think, ‘I’m going to need to go to the bathroom two times today. How can I do that without disgracing myself? If I have to eat, how long will it take me to walk there?’ How many of us have to go through that kind of indignity?”
As far as Twillman is concerned, this “real bad wave of people” in her neighborhood is a nightly indignity she shouldn’t have to bear. Neighbors of Holy Family have called the health department about the feces and litter in the alley, but nothing changes, she says. City councilmembers and the mayor have sent inspectors, but Twillman wants them to hold a town meeting about the house.
“They put these shelters and soup kitchens in the inner city because it used to be that people thought of the inner city as the ghetto and that people here don’t care and don’t have any money to do anything about it,” says Twillman. “You don’t see those people in Brookside or Overland Park.”
Holy Family cares about the neighbors’ concerns, says Rodemann, but he isn’t about to shut his doors to hungry people just because the neighbors don’t like them.
“We have two very different lifestyles trying to co-exist in the same neighborhood,” says Rodemann. “What is lacking here is the consideration that there are other people in the city — people who have needs and just want to stay alive.”