Bishop and mayor learn about services that offer ‘a hand up’ to women

GARY – Two of Northwest Indiana’s most important community leaders were introduced to one of the area’s most important nonprofit agencies last month, learning about the myriad services offered to homeless and at-risk women and their children.
    Bishop Robert J. McClory, ordained and installed on Feb. 11 as the fifth prelate for the Diocese of Gary, and Mayor Jerome Prince, sworn in on Dec. 30 for the City of Gary, both visited Sojourner Truth House (STH) on July 21 as Sister Peg Spindler, CSA, executive director, resumed the monthly Coffee & Conversation sessions. 
    “We don’t want to be just a (place that offers a) hand-out, but a hand up, so our clients can become self-sufficient,” Sister Peg explained as she gave the two leaders a tour of the facilities, including a community center, classroom, child enrichment center, case management offices, clothing boutique, food pantry and community garden.
    After being closed for 85 days by the COVID-19 pandemic, STH reopened on June 16 with a new look and new protocols in place to reflect the continuing health crisis that plagues the U.S. While the buildings were closed for an extended time, Sister Peg stressed that staff members continued to connect with clients by phone, email and in-person visits to make sure their immediate needs were met.
    Marveling that Sister Peg has headed STH since it was founded 23 years ago by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC), who continue their sponsorship, Bishop McClory asked if she had seen a change over the past five years in the needs of the approximately 2,000 clients served each month.
    “I think we are more aware of the needs and the cycle of poverty that affects our clients,” Sister Peg replied. “The basic problem continues to be a lack of affordable housing, and capitalism which works for some but not for others. Transportation is another problem. We do have bus service, but there are not too many jobs downtown, which is why we are looking toward an entrepreneurship twist.” 
    Sister Peg explained to Bishop McClory and Mayor Prince that thanks to a $100,000 grant through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fund for Gary – the largest foundation grant in the history of STH – the agency will develop Steel City Boxtown, an innovative container marketplace and entrepreneurship program modeled on a Chicago program.
    Clients have already begun taking job training and business classes in anticipation of a partnership with Delta Institute’s Steel City Salvage that will bring shipping containers to the STH parking lot. Modified into small retail shops for services, food/produce and handmade goods, the plan is for clients to develop the potential to earn income as part of a midtown Gary marketplace and community gathering spot.
    Sister Peg also showed the two leaders offices that now house the Gateway Permanent Supportive Housing program, taken over from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Gary in 2019. Incorporated into its homeless services, STH will oversee 50 housing units throughout Lake County with funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.
    “Every square foot in this facility (the former Holy Trinity Church, rectory, garage and additions) is fully occupied – sometimes 2-3 times over,” added Scott E. Yahne, an attorney who serves on the STH board. 
    Sister Peg explain that about half of STH’s annual $1.2 million budget comes from the PHJC, while the reminder is raised through donations, grants, fundraisers and other sources. The annual Walk for STH, held virtually in June, raised $90,000 (minus expenses), while the upcoming annual Week of Womenaid will also go virtual from Sept. 13-19 as women in the community host online and in-person fundraising house parties.
    The STH food pantry has gone mobile for the time being, serving more than 2,000 clients monthly by pre-packaging groceries and distributing them in a drive-thru operation from 9-11 a.m. and 1-2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the STH parking lot.
    “I am thoroughly impressed; they do a wonderful job,” said Mayor Prince as he watched volunteers load groceries into cars for clients and distribute donated face masks.
    In response to the George Floyd killing and the subsequent protests, Sister Peg said STH has begun hosting a “Finding the Truth on Fridays” video series (available at www.sojournertruthhouse.org and on Facebook) that features clients and other community members “telling their stories of systemic racism affecting their lives. It has been pretty powerful.”
 

Mayor Jerome Prince, Sister Peg Spindler and Bishop Robert J. McClory
Mayor Jerome Prince, Bishop Robert J. McClory and Sister Peg Spindler