By Eileen Connelly, OSU 

One year ago, the future was uncertain for Joe. At 35-years old, he had recently been incarcerated, was unhoused and had nowhere to turn for support. He had an upward battle ahead of him. 

“I felt lost, alone, and I just needed a fresh start,” he admitted, when he arrived at Franciscan Outreach in Chicago. And he found one – Franciscan Outreach welcomed him with open arms, without judgment, and treated him with compassion, dignity and respect.  

Joe’s story is just one example of how vulnerable people have been welcomed and supported in the Franciscan way, the Gospel way, over the years.

Sheltering, serving and empowering guests 

Br. Ed Shea, OFM, who serves on the board of Franciscan Outreach, has been involved with the organization for nearly 40 years. He recalled the vision of Br. Phillip Marquard, OFM, who established the ministry on Chicago’s West Side in 1963 as a halfway house for men coming out of prison. The men received transitional housing, job counseling and placement and access to substance use disorder programs. “Phil saw a need to help the men who had no place else to go,” Br. Ed explained.  

Franciscan Outreach’s services quickly expanded to include women and a variety of programs geared toward helping Chicago’s marginalized homeless population to gain stability, find independence and transition into permanent housing. Today Franciscan Outreach provides safe shelter for hundreds of men and women at three locations, as well as three healthy daily meals, case management services, health care, and mental health counseling.  

“We’re trying to address the root causes of homelessness and help people on their journey to find housing,” Br. Ed said. “The best thing about Franciscan Outreach is we really see the people and develop personal relationships with them. They’re our guests, not clients. They’re brothers and sisters. The Franciscan way is the way of brotherhood. It’s all about inclusivity here. It’s like the song – ‘All are Welcome in this Place.’”  

Veterans and their families sit in the pews of a large church

Lawndale Christian Health Center provided much needed and appreciated foot care for guests on Holy Thursday last year. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Outreach) 

A priest lights a candle on the altar as another watches

Br. Ed Shea, OFM, offered a blessing during Franciscan’s Outreach’s 2023 Juneteenth celebration. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Outreach) 

‘We show them God’s love. We believe in them.’ 

The needs of the people they serve are “so vast that it’s hard to describe,” emphasized Robret Simpson, executive director. Most of their clients are single males of minority backgrounds in their 30s and 40s, with an extended history of homelessness.  

“Our guests need compassion and opportunity. We work with people who, by no fault of their own or all the fault of their own, have ended up in circumstances where no one else wants them,” she said. “We say, ‘Come here. You’re welcome here. We want you even if no one else does. We’re willing to help you start over and will support you as many times as it takes.’” 

Peggy Brown, a longtime volunteer and current board secretary at Franciscan Outreach, is inspired by the countless examples of help and hope she has witnessed, and by the valuable lessons she’s learned from guests. 

“It’s remarkable that the guests, even though they are undergoing tremendous hardships, can be so courageous and so grateful. I hear such faith and hope in their stories,” she said. “There may only be 10 inches between the beds at the shelter, and the guests may have to eat standing up, but if you ask them how they are doing, so many respond, ‘I am blessed,’ even under desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is complaining that they don’t have the most expensive new car. The guests are truly an inspiration.”  

Calling the ministry “a wonderful place to be involved with,” Peggy noted that Franciscan spirituality is at the core of everything that happens there.  

“Everyone is encouraged to remember that we’re all in this together, that if we have time, a talent or treasure, we are called to share it,” she said. “We really have the opportunity to be here for people who have never had a break, never had any support, no one to believe in them. We show them God’s love and that we believe in them.”  

A priest lights a candle on the altar as another watches

Franciscan Outreach appreciates donates from the community. A list of its most immediate needs is available on its website. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Outreach) 

Veterans and their families sit in the pews of a large church

A guest is fitted for glasses at Franciscan Outreach’s monthly Eyeglasses for the Homeless event. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Outreach) 

A tremendous impact 

The statistics from Franciscan Outreach reflect the tremendous impact the organization has on the lives of Chicago’s most vulnerable population. In 2023, 2,755 guests were supported, 263,093 meals served, and 99,188 shelter nights provided. The numbers are certainly impressive, but at the heart of the organization’s ministry is the well-being and unique needs of each guest who comes through the door, including Joe.  

“During his time with us, Joe looked to our staff for guidance and support,” said Sally Berkhia, director of development “After working with his case manager, Joe was able to move into a home of his own. The progress didn’t stop there. Joe said that he was so inspired by the service he received at Franciscan Outreach, that he started volunteering at the food pantry of his church.”  

“Joe is an inspiring individual who was able to overcome various challenges with support from Franciscan Outreach,” she added. “He expressed his gratitude toward Franciscan Outreach and thanked his case manager, and he was moved to tears as he was telling us about how empowering it feels to have his own home. He also said that he continues to volunteer and stays in contact with us. We are happy to share he is doing well.” 

How can you help? 

There are many volunteer opportunities available at Franciscan Outreach: food service/distribution; organizing in-kind donations such as clothing, toiletries, shoes and boots; assisting at monthly "Glasses for the Homeless" events; and "spring cleaning" (any time of year!) at their shelters. For more information, email, or visit Franciscan Outreach's website.  

Franciscan Outreach is located at: 1101 Adams St., Suite A, Chicago, Illinois, 60607. Phone: 773-278-6724.