A dying homeless man named John showed Sister Adele O’Sullivan, M.D., what needed to be done for the seriously ill who live on the streets of Phoenix. And it was a shoebox that never emptied of cash — a sort of miracle of the multiplying loaves and fishes — that enabled her to do it.
“I knew of the needs because the phone rang every day from hospitals wanting to discharge people, and they needed medical beds,” she said. “But there weren’t any in the shelters. There were only shelter beds.”
Sister Adele, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Los Angeles Province, is a physician with a long-time ministry to the poor and to the street people of Phoenix. She is the founder and chief medical officer of Circle the City, an organization that provides health care to the homeless and runs a 50-bed medical respite center, which provides a safe and caring environment for those who need additional care after being discharged from the hospital or released from emergency treatment but aren’t well enough to be back on the streets. Hospice service is also available.
Sister Adele studied to become a pharmacist after joining the religious community and later became a physician to fill the growing needs of Arizona’s rural poor. She also worked in a state psychiatric facility, then was called to work at a medical clinic in Phoenix 20 years ago.
“For me, it was like crossing over a bridge,” she said. “I would have never been happy going back to ‘First World’ American medicine. I am happy doing what I’m doing here that’s really close to Third World medicine in the middle of a big city in the United States.”
“Whenever we needed money, it was there, and it came from all directions, from good people who just wanted to help. It has truly been a loaves and fishes story.” — Sister Adele O’Sullivan
She’s living the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
“Our spirit is to serve the dear neighbor without distinction, to have a unifying love and to operate in the spirit of reconciliation where it’s needed,” said Sister Sandra Williams, a member of the province’s leadership team. “From our founding in France in 1650, our efforts have been to look around for the unmet needs wherever we are and do what we can to address them. We work in terms of really recognizing the dear neighbor in anyone who comes into our lives, and in engaging in all of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”
The needs are many in Phoenix’s rundown neighborhoods, where the homeless try to stay out of the scorching summer heat, and in winter, they struggle to stay warm when the temperature drops below freezing. And all the while, they become sick or injured, like everyone else. They have respiratory and skin infections, acute and chronic conditions that need extended or ongoing treatment, and wounds from the hazards of living on the streets.
In 2006, John was the dramatic face of the homeless who needed so much more.
“I had seen him in our old clinic,” Sister Adele told Our Sunday Visitor. “He had a drug problem, and he drifted in and out, and we would take care of him, and then we wouldn’t see him for a while.”
One day, he came in and said, “I think there’s something wrong.”
“He sounded scared,” she said. “It turned out that he had cancer that had already spread. He never used drugs from then on.”
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments made him so ill that the homeless shelter staff allowed him to stay all day instead of leaving like everyone else was required to do. It was the only option.
“There was no place for him to live in comfort,” Sister Adele said. “We tried giving him pain medication, but it was stolen. He was sick to his stomach. He had blood clots in his legs, and he was having difficulty breathing.”
John was taken to die in hospice care at the very end, much later than she thought he should have been.
“I wished that I could have taken care of him,” she said. “His story was one of the inspirations that made me say that we needed to get a place open for people like John, a place so that those with serious illnesses don’t have to be on the street. There was no place for them to get a clean bed, food and medical care in one place. No place where they weren’t standing in line for a meal and standing in line for a bed.”
The grass-roots project began under the Sisters of St. Joseph’s services and ministries but was soon being supported by many faith communities, school and church groups and community organizations. It was incorporated into a nonprofit public charity, Circle the City, in 2008. They circled the city to minister to the homeless.
The funding started trickling in, then grew by leaps and bounds. For years, Sister Adele had kept donations in a shoebox locked in a medicine cabinet. When she took out money to fill needs, it was quickly replaced and multiplied by additional donations.
“It was like that shoebox had the love of the community in it,” she said. “Whenever we needed money, it was there, and it came from all directions, from good people who just wanted to help. It has truly been a loaves-and-fishes story.”
She compared it to the mercy of God that’s “unending and without limits, bigger than we could ever imagine.”
Marisue Garganta is director of community health integration and community benefit for Dignity Health (St. Joseph Hospital Center) in Phoenix.
“I was appalled when I saw rest beds at shelters,” she said about the only choice available for the homeless who were ill. “It was just a space, and they would have to take care of themselves. It was not OK. When we started to work closely with Sister Adele, we came to really understand the need to help her to promote her vision.”
Funding was raised for the respite center, and complying with licensing and city regulations fell into place.
“Sister Adele has the ability to work in such an ecumenical way and to get all these people to come together,” Garganta said. “We call her the ‘saint of the streets’ and the ‘angel of the streets,’ and she has such a charismatic way that nobody wants to disappoint her. She makes everyone feel included, and you know that this work comes from a power greater than any of us.”
The center, a state of the art, homelike facility, opened its doors in October 2012. In addition to medical care, the individual receives case management and has opportunities to socialize with outings and in-house programs like concerts from visiting musicians.
“Everybody who comes agrees to participate in their own care to get better and to have life-changing experiences,” Sister Adele said. “About 900 people have come through the center in about 1,100 admissions, and of those who complete treatment, about 80 percent don’t return to the streets. They go into some kind of stable living arrangements.
“They start seeing themselves in a different way that’s worthy of dignity and respect. I think that the third that decide to mend bridges with family and friends is like the phenomenon of the shoebox. It’s that bottomless pit of mercy. It’s love and kindness and mercy for these people.
“It’s absolutely life-changing. For me, it’s a joyful calling. We can’t think about the mercy of God without wanting to extend that mercy. We are the conduits, and what a really joyful life that is.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.