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In those days, Sister Sue says, shelter residents would stay longer than they'd agreed--promised jobs would evaporate, rides would fall through--and drinking and drugs were rampant. "What they were telling us was, they wanted to be self-sufficient," she remembers. "But then sometimes they'd lie to us, or there was substance abuse, or they'd say they went to work but they didn't, or they'd break a curfew. We found we had to really mean what we said. If they abused our system, the games were over, kiddo. It was goodbye."

More hard-and-fast rules followed. Residents had to find a job--"a real job, not a stopgap thing"--in ten days, or leave. If they found a place to move, they would be given free furniture--but only once. And even if hard times hit again, they were not allowed back into the shelter until a year had passed. "Their actions had to follow their words," Sister Sue says, "but of course, we never knew the right answer, only that we could not be in the rescue business, just the business of providing options."

Over the next ten years Sister Sue attracted an increasing number of volunteers and also added paid staff members. Sacred Heart's annual budget--now overseen by a six-member board of directors--approached a quarter of a million dollars. Only 11 percent of this money came from government agencies, and Sister Sue remembers bending over backward to account to the private donors who made up the rest of the budget--to the point of having her volunteers contribute to a book of essays about the people of Sacred Heart. "They kept coming to the door, the same cast of characters that we had seen before," Sister Sue says. "The kitchen table and the coffeepot were key. Once we began our tough-love approach, they'd tell us what was really going on with them, their successes, their disasters, and we would listen and listen some more, and they kept coming back."

The Sacred Heart alums became a sort of extended family. "We knew that was true when we buried several of our people," Sister Sue recalls. "Some were older, but three younger ones died of cancer, another of we don't know what. There were children born dead, probably of poor nutrition, and we buried them, too. That was the beginning of what we called the Follow-Up program."

Of course, some Follow-Up clients have less depressing stories. "In fact," says Sister Sue, "I saw one last week. She came to us in 1988, with four children, and fought her way up, leaning on us whenever she had to. She got her GED, found a job as a home health aide, and just last month bought her first car. It took four years, but she's off the dole now."

Getting off the dole--even keeping the shelter's doors open--often depended on something Sister Sue calls "creepidence," a term she coined to describe "a mixture of creepy divine providence and a miracle."

Once, when funds were so low that staffers had spent two hours trimming items from a grocery list--had just, in fact, decided to live without coffee or sugar --an anonymous donor sent over ten pounds of each. Another time, a father of three, living at the shelter with his wife and children, asked for an alarm clock so he could wake at 2 a.m. in order to walk to his construction job in Littleton. "And someone did donate an alarm clock," Sister Sue remembers, "but better yet, that same night, here came a bicycle, and not a broken-down one, either. It had air in the tires! He rode that bike to work until he met someone who could give him a ride.

"Creepidence," she recalls. "We would sit around telling stories about it. I miss that."

end of part 1

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff