Sometimes when he got weary Luke Wesby would sit down at a bus stop in Baltimore. He had no fare and no destination, but it was a way of acting like he did.
“People were going back and forth to work, and I was sitting there like I was getting on the next bus,” recalls Wesby, 51. “But I had nowhere to go. I was hopeless.”
Hopeless and homeless, Wesby wandered the streets living in shelters, eating at soup kitchens and spending whatever he earned from menial work on alcohol and drugs.
“I was a bum,” he says.
He’s not anymore. He has been sober for almost six years, has a housecleaning job at Johns Hopkins Hospital and he just bought his first home, a century-old row house in a revitalized part of downtown.
And Wesby says it’s all because he found a place at Earl’s Place, a United Ministries program that has provided temporary housing to homeless men since 1997.
“When I got to Earl’s Place, I learned how to cook again. I had clean clothes. I made my bed in the morning. It might not sound like much, but when you have nothing, that is a lot,” he says.
Sheila Helgerson, the executive director of Earl’s Place, has witnessed such gratitude for small things and their power to make big changes in the lives of the homeless. She meets new residents who tell her they never had a key until they got a key to Earl’s Place.
“It’s really heart-warming. The first time I heard that, I was like — wow! Now I’ve heard it many times,” she says.
Earl’s Place houses 17 men in two adjoining row houses in Baltimore. Men can stay for up to two years and continue to work on their recovery from drugs and alcohol, look for employment, continue their education and seek permanent housing.
The program has had steady success, but Helgerson has no illusions about ever running out of residents. The waiting list is months long.
“Are we ending homelessness? No,” she says. “Are we making a difference? Yes. If we can have 12 to 18 men go back into society on an annual basis, that is making a difference.”
In April, Helgerson received the James Floyd Jenkins Pillar of Faith Award from the Howard University School of Divinity and the United Church of Christ. The award honors individuals who have provided transformational leadership.
Getting residents back on track takes patience, faith and will, Helgerson says.
“You just have to be tenacious,” she says. “They have so many things to overcome. But I’m an optimist, so we keep going.”