What drives you to do what you do? What motivates you?
This position is not a job for the faint of heart, it definitely requires a tremendous amount of compassion. Vince Stefanelli, the director of the Epworth Men’s Shelter, takes personal pride in the relationships he holds with the men at the Cornerstone Community Outreach.
They have a max capacity of seventy men and the shelter has many regulars, some of which have called the facility home for years. Over time they have become somewhat of an a-traditional family.
Sadly, he noted that keeping the shelter operating is an ongoing battle. The public aid sector is a broken system in desperate need of repair. This is not a line of work you enter for the salary; you have to be deeply passionate about the cause you serve.
What type of message would you like to deliver to the community about what you are doing?
Interacting with the community can come at a cost. On one hand they would love to see more promotion of the shelter because it’s a very deserving cause and could certainly use the support of the community, but on the other hand there are people out there who are not terribly enthusiastic about having a shelter in their backyards. The more you promote yourself, the more you open yourself up to exposure which can highlight vulnerabilities. Thus, self-promotion becomes a double-edged sword.
Vince urges people to remember that homelessness is often caused by an extraneous set of unforeseen circumstances and reminded me that it can happen to anyone.
Although he did say that there are people out there who are homeless by choice, the overwhelming majority of individuals have some sort of condition that has made securing permanent housing a struggle.
It may come as a surprise that the men he works with at Cornerstone abide by strict rules, and drug or alcohol use of any kind is not tolerated. He would love to see the perception of individuals in this situation shift.
How long have you been in this role and what was it like when you started?
Vince started in shelters in 2004 after wrapping up a career in politics. Cornerstone was the third shelter organization he had worked with and when he started with then they were in the process to transitioning management. Sadly, prior management had very poor governance which positioned the shelter as a nuisance, and highlighted the men frequenting the shelter in an inaccurate light. The previous management team did not treat the men with the level of morality and respect they deserve.
To add additional strain, Vince says that many neighbors sadly dismissed the shelters presence, and some have even gone as far as to wrongfully blame the men for unwelcome actions in the community.
He has spent the length of his career working towards improving the relationship the shelter holds with the community and would encourage anyone who is experiencing a problem to come to him. Vince is always more than happy to help problem solve and would love for people in the community to engage with the shelter in a positive way.
What type of service do you provide to the men?
Cornerstone has the good fortunate to be able to provide a variety of resources to the men that call the shelter home.
On a typical summer day at the shelter there are usually at lease fifty men seeking a bed for the night, and in the winter they reach capacity. In order to secure a bed, an individual must put their name on the evening roster by 4pm that day. Doors close at 9pm and it is lights off at 11pm. Everyone is off bright and early before 7am the next morning.
Inside the facility you will find three showers and one bathroom shared amongst up to seventy men. Although the facility is operated out of the Epworth Church they are not owned or affiliated with them, but they are the Church’s best tenants!
Additionally, Cornerstone does provide meals, but only at their other location which is about a mile away on Clifton Ave. That location also provides services to help take an individual through the process of applying for more permanent housing and assists in job placement; however, this is an arduous process and can take months to successfully complete for a single individual.
How do you motivate the gentlemen that frequent the shelter?
Vince’s management philosophy is built on respect. I personally watched him individually greet the men walking through the door during my visit. It was abundantly clear through the exchanging of handshakes and smiles that respect is a key part of this operation.
In fact, each staff member other than Vince, has at one point or another been a tenant of the shelter. Vince shared that these internal promotions have instilled a great sense of pride in the men who work there. The level of commitment they have to the cause is unmatched by any individual to come in as an outside hire. It is part of Cornerstones mission to have these men be seen as valuable members of the community who are working towards personal stability.
What are some of the shelter’s goals for the next year?
The major annual goal for the shelter is simply to stay open. The shelter is facilitated out of the recreation room of the church that was constructed in the early 1900s. Today the space is in need of renovations, but funding was cut in years past.
During this uncertain time, Rahm Emanuel was the shelter’s saving grace, delegating money to help keep the shelter open for the next three years. Right now, the shelter has two years left before their future becomes more uncertain.
Ideally, the shelter would like to organize an annual fundraiser to help offset their many needs.
Have you witnessed any significant changes in the community since you started?
When asked about this, Vince mentioned how it only takes a moment to leave a bad impression that can take years to correct. There has been a shelter at this location for the past forty years and the neighborhood has undergone significant changes over the past two decades.
Presently, Vince facilitates outreach programs primarily to youth groups nationwide. While he is proud of the eye-opening impact spending time in a shelter can have on the groups he speaks with, he would like to see the same engagement from the city as a whole. Chicago community members universally understand that homelessness is a wide-facing issue, but he would like to see the same eye-opening impact resonate throughout the surrounding communities that Cornerstone needs the support of.
If you want to help support Cornerstone Community Outreach, they are always grateful for toiletry donations. All donations can be dropped off directly to their location at 5253 N. Kenmore Ave.