Faith Life, June 2015

Homeless to Hopeful

How the Christian Outreach Center is helping rebuild lives 

through the power of the Gospel

by Susan Brown

DSCN5074 (1)Jamal Hunter takes life one day at a time. And today has been a good one. She holds up the key to her new apartment, flashes a smile, and explains that after decades of living “here and there,” battling addiction and mental illness, she has found hope and purpose through her new “family,” at The Christian Outreach Center.

“I started out with nothing and all of a sudden I’ve accomplished a whole lot. I didn’t do it. God did it,” she says.

“Our vision,” explains COC Executive Director, the Rev. Brian Sleeth, “is to tackle the barriers of homelessness and get traction in people’s lives – in a very real sense to take people from square one to self-sufficiency.” The COC meets immediate needs by providing one-time financial assistance, meal packages, hygiene kits and clothes. But the heart of the program is a commitment to life change through mentoring, addiction recovery groups and Bible studies. They serve a diverse clientele including single mothers, the elderly, the disabled and those who are homeless. As many as 10,000 requests for assistance have been met through the Main Street location.

The Christian Outreach Center is funded primarily through the Purple Cow thrift stores on Jones Creek Road and Perkins Road at Acadian Thruway. Support also comes from churches committed to investing in the downtown area: First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church and St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

The comprehensive work provided by the COC makes the difference, according to Sleeth. Rather than piecemeal solutions that can falter in the face of overwhelming difficulties, the COC staff engages in life coaching for the total person – physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Keeping Jesus and the Bible at the center of their work is critical. “Unless he renews the mind then people are going to remain trapped,” Sleeth explains. “I’ve seen many times, people get something good going on and they’ll either fall back or they’ll sabotage it on purpose because they’re scared of the change or they’re more comfortable – out of fear – with what they have, as dysfunctional as it is.”

DSCN5077For Hunter, it hasn’t been easy. By her calculation she spent at least two decades in the haze of drug addiction, a quick fix for the lingering pain of abuse, rape and rejection she endured early in life. The downward spiral of drugs and instability left her with damaged family relationships and health concerns. Jamal explains that she still carries a bullet close to her spine, the result of a street encounter with a teenaged assailant that resulted in the loss of her unborn child.

After detox, she spent 6 months in Alliance House, a program for those recovering from substance abuse and other co-existing disorders. A Bible-based addition recovery group offered by the COC opened her eyes to the real possibility of making a break with her past.

“I got to the point where I just cried out, told God to give me the desire of my heart,” Hunter explains. “And He said this is what I give you. You’ve got to continue it.”

Since taking over the program in 2013, Sleeth has expanded the staff and begun a two-pronged approach to meeting needs. The COC began the first local “Jobs for Life” class that meets twice a week to teach participants how to find – and keep – a job. The COC connects people with existing jobs, including construction, landscaping and work at Tiger Stadium. A big break came last fall when a substantial number of workers were hired to set up the new Belk department store in Denham Springs.

To overcome the transportation barrier, Sleeth set up Christian Outreach Transitional Employment Services that now provides a van to take workers to job sites daily. Their 2015 wish list includes at least one more 15-passenger van.

DSCN5083While meeting the immediate need for stability and temporary work, the COC begins the transition to long-term employment. The staff – two case workers and a counseling intern – helps clients construct long-term goals and take steps to accomplish them.

Hunter is currently working as a dietary assistant and is setting her sights on becoming a Certified Nurse Assistant. She wants to be close to those who can’t help themselves and hopes her story will reveal a path for people in similar situations.

“The Christian Outreach Center helps you along your way,” Hunter explains. “If you still want to continue your recovery they would be there for you. Totally. Everything.” For Hunter, that includes continued weekly counseling and even dental work through a connection with Owens Family Dentistry in Zachary.

“What we were powerless to do, only the gospel can do,” Sleeth says. “Despite all these things that have happened – abuse and losing children and being the victim of a violent crime – she stays hopeful and she just keeps her eyes fixed on Christ. And she has a smile on her face.”