Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Detroit, Michigan (photo, above) provides shelter, food and warmth to Detroit's homeless community.

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the Warming Center

The core of Ignatian spirituality has to do with forming one’s relationships with God, one’s neighbor and oneself, and the Warming Center offers the space necessary for building up these relationships.

The Warming Center – Living the Jesuit Mission

May 21, 2015

One wintery morning about 25 years ago, Fr. Robert Hartigan, SJ – then pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Detroit – invited some of his neighbors off the street for a warm cup of coffee. That simple act evolved into the Warming Center, a place of community where people experiencing homelessness get support in meeting basic needs and more.

“Certainly, it’s critical that we provide things like food and a respite from the elements,” says Lydia Maola, operations director for the church and the center. “But sometimes what someone needs most is simply a caring word or a smile. Human beings need companionship and compassion as well as life-sustaining necessities. All people deserve respect and kindness regardless of their circumstances, and our ministry is about welcoming each guest from the moment he or she enters, with dignity, fairness and empathy.”

The Warming Center goes even further, however – by helping people combat the hygiene issues that come with living on the street, obtain identification documents when they don’t have an address, tend to feet that are subject to frostbite.

“Many of our guests don’t get to make the choices we do,” says Lydia. “We choose what we eat, where we go, how we dress, when we go to bed. Our guests may not make a single choice in a given day:  food is served at 9 a.m.; shoes are given out across town only on Tuesdays; no room tonight in the shelter. It takes skill and knowledge to live on the street.”

“Since I started working here about six years ago,” she adds, “it’s been clear to me that people experiencing homelessness are not defined by their circumstances; life just happened. Many suffer with mental illness and have been forced out of institutions due to limited funding or government cut-backs. Their realities might include addiction, grief, shame, fear and of course poverty. Yet in the midst of such difficulty, I am continually impressed by the atmosphere of peace and gratitude among our guests.”

A homeless man rests inside the Warming Center

The Warming Center’s Services 
 At a Glance

Hospitality Guests are welcomed into a safe haven, for coffee, tea, donuts, bagels and pastries; a hot meal; and bread, peanut butter 
and jam for sandwiches. There is a television, newspapers and magazines.

Hygiene Care Shower and shaving facilities and restrooms are available for guests to take care of personal needs. A laundry room provides the opportunity to wash clothing and other belongings. Nursing students from area universities come in to give foot care and general health advice.

Practical Care Along with free use of a phone and mail service, the center distributes new socks, underwear, hand-warmers, hats, gloves and scarves when available. 

Bible Study A group meets on Sunday mornings to read, hear and study God’s word.

H.E.L.P. Homeless Experience Legal Protection  Law firms donate time to meet 
with homeless men and women once a week, to assist them with legal issues like obtaining identification and Social Security.

Although it is called the Warming Center – and serves about 80 people each weekday, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the winter – the ministry has been open for about six weeks each summer since 2012. Lydia explains, “I have heard people say, ‘You will never hear of someone on the street dying of heatstroke because he didn’t have shelter from the heat.’ That may be true, but he still deserves a place to wash his clothes, get a good meal and feel safe. In addition, many of our guests walk several miles a day in ill-fitting shoes. Having foot care all year can reduce issues that would otherwise go unnoticed, and which would exacerbate the problems of frostbite in the winter.”

Guests’ spiritual needs are also addressed. “The core of Ignatian spirituality has to do with forming one’s relationships with God, one’s neighbor and oneself, and the Warming Center offers the space necessary for building up these relationships,” Lydia says. “In addition, one of the priorities of our ministry is the Jesuit value of finding God in all things; it is the undercurrent of everything we do, say and provide.”

The Warming Center also offers a weekly Bible study and, for the first time this year, some guests participated in an Ignatian Spirituality Project retreat tailored to people experiencing homelessness.

As a ministry of Saints Peter and Paul, the Warming Center operates thanks to individuals, other parishes, family foundations and the Midwest Jesuits (who also help with staffing needs). In addition, a recent grant from the UAW Ford Joint National Programs enabled renovation of a former chapel, increasing the ministry’s area from about 1,000 to 3,000 square feet. Opened last July, the enhanced space includes a new laundry room with four washer/dryer units, a larger kitchen, three showers, two shaving stations, four handicapped-accessible bathrooms, group and private meeting spaces, and a larger gathering area that allows guests to sit at tables.

The update was sorely needed, as the space previously used was dingy and unable to meet all of the hygienic needs of guests. With the expansion comes exciting opportunities to enhance services, which may include: afternoon hours, art/creative outlets, spirituality groups and a 12-step program.

Even so, the Warming Center does not focus on rehabilitating those living on the street. “We are here to help people experiencing homelessness when they need us, in the way they need us,” Lydia says. “Our ministry is about serving people where they are. We do not try to change them or expect them to be anyone other than themselves. Our sole goal is using our place in the city to care for the least among us, reaching out to people who are otherwise discarded by society.”

If you'd like to read about others who are Living the Jesuit Mission, please click here.

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