People who are experiencing homelessness and have suffered trauma deserve respect, kindness, and dignity. This is at the heart of the work of Saint Martin’s Hospitality and Behavioral Health Center. Father Rusty recalls the stories of those who have given him the gift of seeing that at the center of his work and his life is compassion for all human beings.
John walked into Father Rusty’s office at Saint Martin’s Hospitality and Behavioral Health Center. He carried a used and creased cardboard sign that read “Homeless” in black sharpie. He handed it to Father Rusty and said, “My name is not Homeless. I used to be a teacher, I love classical music, and I have children, but people don’t see me. They only see me as homeless.” Father Rusty remarks, “That day I was reminded that people are so deeply who they are when we truly see them as they see themselves, as John did that day. Leaving his sign with me had somehow transformed John into part of my family. We had a level of trust and understanding to bind us. I knew deep down he would no longer be defined by that sign, which remains in my office today as a reminder.”
Father Rusty Smith is the Executive Director of Saint Martin’s Hospitality and Behavioral Health Center. Saint Martin’s frequently collaborates with local service agencies, such as Albuquerque Heading Home, to provide a continuum of care for the clients they serve. The services they provide include: behavioral health services, substance use assistance, employment services, housing services (e.g. transitional housing, rapid rehousing, housing relocation, and emergency shelter support and intake), Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), Shelter Plus Care, and outreach. Each of these components works together like a blues riff—jamming with each other to find the best service combination to meet the different needs of different people. At the center of all of this is compassion for other human beings.
Father Rusty began his life as a Catholic. “The priest of my family was my mother. She worked full-time and lived by loving others. As a young boy I was a resistant participant to her ways of service, but she took me to [visit] a shelter in Austin, Texas.” Father Rusty admits that he had a terrible attitude and that he made her life miserable on that trip. “Here she works all week, and she has a son who is a monster,” says Father Rusty. As they were driving home, she pulled the car over abruptly and said, “This is not about the poor. This is about you growing up to be a human being that I respect.” She believed in helping people that no one else cared about. This is part of who Father Rusty is today. This car trip with his mother changed his life.
As an adult, Father Rusty studied Liberation Theology from Gustavo Gutierrez, a priest who believed that all human beings should be free. Gutierrez believed human beings both created freedom and enslaved each other, but he focused on freedom. The applied theology of this understanding is that you change the world through action: “You feed the hungry. You can’t just talk about doing it.” Father Rusty’s work has found its strength among people who live on the margins. “The context of human liberation is so stunning—why do I put shackles on your dreams? And yet we do this all the time. At Saint Martin’s we help people to find the keys to those shackles without putting new ones on.”
Father Rusty recounted the day when “an older man wearing slacks, a cardigan sweater, and sturdy brown shoes walked up to me.” Barely able to contain his grief, the newness of it, he shared that his wife just died. “‘I have no place to go home to,’ said the man quietly. He looked like any of our grandfathers and he looked really very scared. I walked him to the shelter and showed him around. We were able to get him a hotel room, but it broke my heart,” said Father Rusty. Seeing this brokenhearted man who missed his wife and had no place to go transcended the grief of homelessness on this particular day.
No one wants to be homeless.
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