THREE FAMILIES. TWO FRIDGES.
We spent the morning at the Dorothy Day House, a home for homeless families. We met Genevieve, a Memphis transplant who came to the city with Teach For America, left the program, volunteered at the house, and fell in love with its mission. The idea is to give families who have been homeless and are in a rough patch a chance to get their things in order with the help of the staff, have a supportive environment for their kids to feel like they’re not in a homeless shelter, and get back on their feet in a handful of months.
The home is large – it’s really just a big house. It doesn’t look or feel like a shelter. But there are some strategic implementations that show the thoughtful nature of the employees and the heart of the organization. For example, the kitchen is huge – there are two fridges. “it’s big enough for three. But we keep two – we don’t want families to get complacent, to forget they’re staying here with others, that this isn’t their permanent home. We want to push them towards a goal.”
They also don’t take government funding. “There’s too much red tape. If a kid needs new shoes in September, and basketball shoes in October – we will get that for them. We want to be able to help them as much as possible.”
Each situation is different, Genevieve tells us. They don’t have a program. They do what needs to be done for each family. Her passion was clear – she went around the room and picked photographs off the wall to explain to us each different family’s situation at the time they came to the house. The Dorothy Day House is the only shelter in Memphis of its kind. It only has four full-time employees, and has helped and housed 50 families.
Despite her passion for the work, she expressed her own surprise that she had stayed here for so long – she thought she’d end up in New York, or Boston, having come from Philly. But she fell in love with the city and with the DDH. “When people who come here for Teach For America end their tenure, a lot of them leave. And I’m like ‘there are other jobs here!’” But she also said many people do stay – and that still surprises her. “Every day is different. That’s one of the best parts of this job. I’ve seen three babies born since I started working here a year ago!”
They say your friends are your chosen family. With this experience, and meeting a librarian who loved her job because the library is a haven for people and helps people of all ages – is that sentiment even more so, in Memphis? It’s not just looking out for your own, it’s looking out for your community. We talked in the car about how the Dorothy Day House is possible – it wouldn’t be possible in New York because of the scale. But is it in Memphis not just because of the size of the population, but also because the Memphis mindset makes it possible?
We keep talking to people with Memphis as a way in, trying to get to eventually dig into their deeper life and family. But we’ve been lamenting that we keep just getting stuck on Memphis. Every person we’ve spoken with, we can’t get to the “family talk” – we get into hours-long conversations about Memphis – friends, jobs, changes, neighborhoods. Is this, itself, the family talk, because Memphis is (cliché, sorry) a family?