Homeless by the Dome

Author: Cassidy McDonald

John Clark

Tasha Vaughn says she became homeless for two reasons: “divorce and brain surgery.”

About 12 years ago, Tasha was a newly single mother with four kids between the ages of 9 and 16. In a turn of events that mimicked a soap opera, she suffered a sudden brain aneurism and was put into a medically-induced coma for seven weeks.

When she finally awoke, groggy and confused, she tried to regain control of her life but had constant short-term memory loss and slept about 20 hours a day due to medication and the effects of surgery.

“My children had to fend for themselves,” she said. “They learned how to cook.”

Tasha was afraid she’d lose her home and custody of her kids. Her divorce was still pending, and although her estranged husband was physically and emotionally abusive, she felt she had no other choice but to return.

After about a month, they were behind on rent and she decided she’d suffered enough, so she left.

She was hesitant to move her family into a homeless shelter. “In my mind, it was a big room with a bunch of cots,” she said, “but we had no other choice.” She and her kids ended up at the South Bend Center for the Homeless.

It turned out the center wasn’t the stuff of movies; there was a Montessori school for kids, yoga, classes on relationship-building and financial literacy and even a Notre Dame-accredited literature class, for guests and staff members alike.

Many aspects of the center are unexpected — even the people who live there. The center’s executive director, Steve Camilleri says, “Homelessness doesn’t discriminate. … I’ve met thousands of people in this community who have experienced homelessness. I see them in all walks of life. They’re part of our community in a powerful way.”

But the center hasn’t always embraced its guests so warmly. The story began in the early 1990s, when Notre Dame’s current vice president for University Relations, Lou Nanni — then an idealistic, service-minded 20-something — took over as executive director.

Lou Nanni’s Path to the Center for the Homeless

Lou Nanni is from a family that makes an impact.

Nanni’s brother spent a career working to help street kids in the Dominican Republic. His sister is a veteran of Greenpeace in New Zealand. Nanni himself worked in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and in the Dominican Republic with Mother Teresa’s sisters. And as for his other brother, Nanni’s father joked, “Hell, if he makes minimum wage, he’ll be more successful than the rest of them.”

Nanni smiles. “There wasn’t a lot of competition from a wage-earning level,” he says.

Unlike what their kids’ altruistic careers would lead one to expect, Nanni’s parents weren’t activists.

“They lead middle class, mainstream lives,” he says, but they raised their kids with firm values. If anyone died in the community, Nanni’s mother was the first person to cook a meal. His dad insisted that his kids respect property and take pride in their work.

When the siblings would return home as adults, the family would often discuss the best way to spend a life. Usually, the dialogues became heated.

“In an Italian family, all arguments are ad hominem,” Nanni says. “Your arguments are judged not by the cogency or the rationale; it’s about volume level and making it personal.”

His dad would say to them, “I think you can be Catholic and just do good work and be committed to your family.”

Nanni and his activist siblings would respond, “No, that’s not enough! You’ve got to go beyond your family.” In one family argument, each child announced they wanted to defend the homeless, the poor or the planet ­— ­but their father, they declared, was “the defender of the status quo.”

“For many years after that,” Nanni says, “he’d sign our birthday cards … ‘Love, your dad, the defender of the status quo.’”

Nanni says, “We were so self assured that we could attack him. You couldn’t really attack my mom because she’s Sicilian and would get very defensive and be really hurt. But you could attack him.”

Around age 25, Nanni returned to Notre Dame after working with women who had survived rape and torture in Chile. On campus, he became friends with Malusi Mpumlwana, then a prominent leader of the South African anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Moevement.

Mpumlwana told him he needed a vision for his life. Nanni called his father and asked his opinion.

“What 25-year-old has a vision in their life?” Nanni asked. “You had no vision in your life.”

Today, Nanni tearfully recounts his father’s response. Very quietly, on the other end of the phone, his father said: “I think my vision was always my family.”

So Nanni set out finding a vision. For almost seven hours, Mpumlwana asked questions to determine how Nanni wanted to make a difference: “Do you want your impact to be local, regional, national, international? Do you see yourself more as a prophet?” he asked, or “somebody who works in the mainstream?”

Nanni had just returned from the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed constant starvation – “the faceless, silent, ignominious deaths of these children and the suffering of their parents, who love their kids as much as I love my kids, but were unable to properly feed them or to get the proper medical care,” he says. “It was overwhelming.”

In deciding a vision for his life, he says he began to picture himself on the bank of a metaphorical river ­— in the same way Holden Caulfield wanted to stand in a field and stop kids from running over the cliff. 

“As I saw the souls being carried down the rapids,” he says, “I wanted to be able to lean over and pluck them out.”

Mpumlwana understood. But he said to Nanni, “You can’t save the people in the river if you’re in the river too. ... How are you going to keep one foot firmly planted in the bank?”

It took Nanni two years, much discernment and countless arguments with his father to determine a vision for his life.

Finally, he decided: “I wanted to be the very best Christian that I could be.” But above all else, he says, “I want my most identifying roles to be as husband and father.”

And just like his own dad before him, that is the vision that guides every decision he makes.

In 1988 when the center opened, it looked like the homeless shelter Tasha Vaughn had imagined — “dirty, dangerous and overcrowded,” Nanni says. It was set up in a way that benefitted the budget, not the people that slept there. A room full of cots was a cost-effective way to keep people off the streets, but did little to help residents change.

When Nanni began, he was the fifth director in two years; nobody had lasted more than six months in the role. The center was $100,000 in debt and had 11 employees who were paid $5 an hour with no health benefits.

“We were pretty much getting what we paid for,” he says.

The main front desk worker was addicted to crack-cocaine and admitted to Nanni that he’d been using on-sight with the guests. On one of her days off, another front desk worker was arrested five blocks down the street for prostitution. A man who worked the graveyard shift — the only staff person on duty from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. — had been luring mothers and single women into an empty office, feeding their drug addictions in exchange for sexual acts. A kitchen worker was caught selling 16 turkeys out of the back door and a maintenance worker bought a lawn mower, though the property didn’t have a single blade of grass.

Nanni acted swiftly. “We just kept, little-by-little, building a team, articulating a compelling vision, getting people to rally around it,” he says.

“Finally, after a year of real hard and dedicated work, we were no longer $100,000 in debt. We were $140,000 in debt,” Nanni laughs. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. I could single-handedly lead this organization to its ruin.’”

Notre Dame, under the Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C. initially contributed $1 million to help purchase and renovate the former men’s clothing store that became the Center for the Homeless. In Nanni’s first year on the job, he would “beg and borrow” from Notre Dame to meet payroll.

Eventually, the place Nanni and Notre Dame had envisioned — a comprehensive facility set up to break cycles, rather than simply feed or house the homeless ­— began to take hold. After a few years, Nanni had set up a Montessori Academy, mental health counseling, a medical clinic, a drug and alcohol rehab center, job training programs and a commercial landscape business that employed residents and former residents.

The center had become such a success that John Kasich, then a U.S. congressman, invited him to speak to lawmakers. Homeless shelters everywhere asked him to visit for trainings. With every invitation, he’d say the only way he would come was if he could bring a resident from the center.

Once, he invited a former guest — a big, tough guy named Hank — to a training in Hawaii.

Hank told him, “I’m terrified of flying. I can’t get on a plane.”

“The hell!” Nanni said. “You’ve been through all this stuff on the streets. ... You’re afraid of flying?”

Nanni realized that Hank had never flown before. He’d traveled down some mean streets, but had few chances to experience the beauty in the world.

After some convincing, Hank agreed to come along.

Nanni remembers one morning on the trip, when he awoke and looked out at the ocean to see Hank — floating in the Hawaiian surf.

After so much time spent homeless, Hank finally had financial security, freedom. Nanni recalls, with misty eyes, the way Hank — outstretched under the tropical sky — floated in the water, letting the waves toss him back and forth with the rhythm of the ocean.

Nanni says he’s inspired and dumbfounded at his guests’ radical transformations. “I look at my pathetic little life,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to discipline myself to eat better, to exercise more.”

Meanwhile, every day, the center’s residents give up alcohol and drugs after years of consecutive use, cut ties with dysfunctional spouses and friends and profoundly change their lives.

Stan Dennis: “It’s Time I Be a Human Being”

Stan Dennis is a man of few words, but in the little he speaks, he says a lot.

He’s lived on his own since he was 12 years old. His childhood home was “a crazy place,” he says, with a dysfunctional combined family.

After he complained to his dad about the arrangement, “The old man finally told me, ‘Well, if you don’t like the way it is, there’s the road.’ So that’s what I did,” Dennis says.

He hitchhiked to Florida and joined a street gang, staying with them until the police found him at age 15. “Between the courts and my mom,” he says, “they put me in the military — the Marine Corps.”

Dennis was stationed at Camp Horno in California from 1972 to 1976. “It was the best thing that ever happened,” he says. “I was a machine-gunner — small arms, demis. That was my specialty.”

When he left the Marine Corps, he wasn’t tied to any city, so he wandered.

He ended up in Hawaii, without any friends or family. “I really didn’t know what to do, so I just went up the mountain,” he says. “They had a bunch of old gun tunnels from WWII and stuff, so I stayed up there. I don’t even know how long it was — so many years.”

He lived on the side of Diamond Head crater, he says, until he killed and ate someone’s peacock. “I didn’t know it was somebody’s pet. So they came looking for me,” he says. “When they found me, I got locked up for a while, because I’d been on the side of a mountain for a long time. They thought that was crazy and abnormal.”

Dennis spent a year in jail. “Last time I’d seen the judge, he made it clear that they’d like it pretty good if I left,” he says. “So I did.”

He continued to wander the U.S. until he got prostate cancer, and four months ago he landed at the Center for the Homeless, which has separate facilities that cater solely to veterans.

“Part of my thing is not being social,” he said, noting that he wasn’t comfortable giving an interview in the center’s small office.

“[The Veteran’s Center] gave me time to figure out what I lack as a human being, because I decided it’s time I be a human being and live like one. But I don’t have any idea because I haven’t done that.”

Dennis hopes the center’s programming will build his interpersonal skills.

“I just want to be better,” he says. “I just want to be complete, finally.”

Nanni has a two-pronged philosophy on how to solve homelessness. The first step, he says, is something politicians don’t understand — the restoration of hope.

The facilities may be state-of-the-art, the services comprehensive, “but if a person fundamentally does not believe that change is possible, none of it matters,” Nanni says. “If they have been through seven drug and alcohol treatment programs and have relapsed every time, you can just begin to imagine how difficult it is to have the courage to try an eighth time.”

And how do you resuscitate hope? In three ways, Nanni says. First, don’t underestimate the physical environment. If you walk on a well-kept campus like Notre Dame’s, he says, it lifts your spirit. Usually the opposite happens in a homeless shelter.

Nanni’s staff would always say, “If there are Rembrandts to be painted or Rodins to be sculpted, [they] ought to be at the homeless center,” implying that the homeless are the most deserving, the most in need, of inspiration.

The second way to resuscitate hope is to treat everyone like family. Yes, that means love and respect, but it also means rules and consequences.

“Get to know people by name,” he says. “They understand that they’re not a foundry. They’re not in some kind of machine. They’re not anonymous. They’re loved.”

And finally, give people opportunity. For instance, if residents are addicted to drugs or alcohol, give them a real, quality program — “not just some crap on paper that makes it look like you can check the box,” he says.

The second part of Nanni’s philosophy about homelessness is that “shoring up people’s deficiencies” only accounts for half of the solution, he says. The other half is the most unexpected and the most often overlooked.

Most social services focus on fixing problems — drug addiction, lack of education, behavioral or mental health issues. Nanni compares that approach to going on an impossible crash diet or a strict workout plan. “You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Shit. I’m not doing enough. I’ve got to do more,” Nanni says. Striving for lofty goals can be discouraging and foster self-doubt.

“It tears down your self esteem while you’re working on confronting hard issues that really need to be addressed,” he says. “The other half of the social service model needs to be helping to give expression to people’s giftedness.”

That’s where talent shows, painting lessons and computer classes become useful. While their purpose wouldn’t immediately be obvious to an outsider or policymaker, they break cycles — as Nanni says, “lots of ways where people can pat you on the back and say, ‘Man, you are really good at this! Where did you learn how to do this?”

How Soccer Saved Timothy Cummins From the Streets

Timothy Cummins says he grew up in “a good loving family.” Although his father left when he was three, his mom worked three jobs to send Cummins and his sister to a private grade school. 

He had attention deficit disorder (called hyperactivity at the time) and his mother was vigilant, often referencing a thick book called, “How to Rear Hyperactive Children.” As the book suggested, she signed him up for sports.  

And he was good — so good that in high school he lettered in seven different sports. He’d practice cross country in the morning, football, basketball or baseball after school and diving on Sundays. The track coach had him run hallways during lunch. Soccer came easily; he was the best on the team. 

Around age 16, his father saw his name in the papers and popped back up in his life. “That’s when I started going downhill a lot, rebelling,” Cummins says. He’d skip class constantly, but his coaches “fixed” his grades and he ended up playing soccer for Triton College.

He was recruited to soccer teams in Mexico, then Argentina, El Salvador, Indianapolis and North Carolina. Throughout his soccer career, he started drinking and snorting crack cocaine and eventually, he lost control. His addiction landed him on the streets.

Though the road to recovery wasn’t straight, soccer kept him going. In 2008, he made the U.S. team for the Homeless World Cup and competed in Australia.

“I could have the worst day of my life, but when I get there and start playing ball, I forget about everything,” he says. “And when you are good at it, you put smiles on other people’s faces.”

He’s now two years clean and has been at the center for four months. Since drugs ruined his teeth, the center helped him get dentures. Every week, he goes to class for computer literacy, job training and relapse prevention.

“My goal for five years from now is to be working steady, have my own place — just be comfortable and happy,” he says. “It doesn’t take much for me to be happy.”

People who are mentally ill and homeless are often met with averted eyes; on the street, they’re outcasts. But at the Center for the Homeless, Nanni met a guest who supported him when he needed it most. It all started at a Burger King.

Her name was Anne — a middle aged woman with long, flowing white hair. She was chronically mentally ill and quoted the Bible constantly — “somebody who would barely say five words without the Lord being included in them,” Nanni says.

One Sunday, only weeks after Nanni had started his job at the Center, he was eating lunch at the downtown Burger King. New to South Bend and filled with doubts about his job, he ate alone. “I had a newspaper with me,” he says, “as much out of interest as company.”

And in the crowded restaurant, in walked Anne. She threw up her hands and bellowed, “Oh! Brother Lou! How does the Lord bless us with this chance occasion?”

Nanni invited her to sit with him. They chatted for a few minutes and eventually she said, “Oh, Brother Lou, I hear the Lord calling me off in another direction. ... Anyways, your food is getting cold.”

 Before she left, Nanni says, she stood over him, clasped his hand between hers and looked piercingly into his eyes. She began to recite Psalm 23 aloud — “and I do mean loudly,” Nanni says.

“The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want. In verdant pastures, he gives me repose,” she recited.

Nanni nervously glanced to the side and the other diners looked down, embarrassed. But as Anne continued, her recitation mesmerized him. She finished the verse, still holding his hand as he looked up in wonder — and she reached over, grabbed his large Sprite, removed the top and began to lift it over his head.

Nanni held himself back from stopping her, but feared a soda shower and finally squeaked, “Anne, no! No, no, no.”

She smiled “that ever-beautiful smile,” he says, and she told him, “Obedience is far greater than sacrifice.”

Nanni knew that was a line he knew from the Bible, but he wasn’t sure how it applied in this particular moment.

She lifted the cup again. In that split second, what felt like a thousand thoughts ran through Nanni’s head: “Maybe I’ll let her pour a little of it, but then how am I going to stop the flow? And I’m going into work. This stuff is really sticky!”

Finally she laughed, set the cup down and said, “Oh Brother Lou, you must have more confidence in the Lord.”

The next day, Anne knocked at the door of Nanni’s office. “Do you have a moment?” she asked. “I just want to clarify a few things about the baptism that we almost had at Burger King yesterday.”

“I’m sure I could use a clarification,” he said.

“Well, that was a large drink you had ordered, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah it was, Anne,” Nanni said.

“Well, I wanted to make sure that you understood this because I’m not sure you really got the message,” she said, “but what the Holy Spirit was telling me was not to necessarily pour that drink on you. What the Holy Spirit was saying to you is that you’ve been given a large cup of responsibility, and this cup will not pass you by.”

Nanni was stunned. “Here was a chronically mentally-ill, middle-aged homeless woman,” he says, “who was bringing words of hope and consolation to a young, upstart, educated kid who desperately needed them.”

He was ashamed that her sage guidance took him by surprise. “The prophets have always come from the margins,” he says. “They’re the people who have the least invested in society, who in their brokenness are able to receive the word of God and reveal it to others in all of its beauty, truth and candor.”

And that cup didn’t pass him by. Nanni lasted eight years at the Center for the Homeless and throughout his tenure as Executive Director — a role that was “physically and emotionally draining” — he learned that he wanted to work on the edges of society, in a job that constantly moved him to prayer.

When he worked at the Center, he often feared his entire team wasn’t enough to make a difference. “At the end of the day, you’re not patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘Wow, you raised some good money today,’ or ‘You implemented a great new program,’” Nanni says. “At the end, you’re just saying, ‘God, please help me. Help me, because I really don’t know what I’m doing here.’”

Eventually, Nanni found his way. The current director, Steve Camilleri, is continuing the legacy Nanni began.

Camilleri says the Center for the Homeless is a place to help people who have become disconnected from others — whether they’ve lost jobs, walked out of abusive relationships or fallen too deep into the hole of addiction.

The center’s goal is to build connections, Camilleri says. Relationships build trust and help people believe in themselves again.

But disconnectedness isn’t just something that happens to the homeless. “We all experience our own poverty,” he says. We all struggle to articulate our purpose. We all feel lonely or spiritually weak.

The Center for the Homeless strives to be a place to breathe, a place to connect, a place to build purpose — for staff and residents alike.

Before the Aneurism: Tasha Vaughn’s Childhood

The aneurism and coma that landed Tasha Vaughn in the center are just two ordeals in a long line of bad breaks, after sexual abuse and the loss of a child.

At age 9, Tasha was molested for the first time. It happened again at age 11, this time by her mother’s boyfriend. At age 12, her mom was diagnosed with cancer. And by 13, Tasha was pregnant.

Her mother, who was constantly absent and had many transient boyfriends, chastised Tasha for getting pregnant — she didn’t know about Tasha’s prior abuse. The baby’s father was another 13-year-old.

Five and a half months into the pregnancy, Tasha felt ill. Her mom said it was a bladder infection, told Tasha to clean the house and left.

Home alone, Tasha’s water suddenly broke. “I felt something wiggle. I looked and I saw a foot dangling,” she said.

She yelled for her cousin, who lived next door. The cousin saw the baby’s dangling foot, went pale and ran down the street to call an ambulance.

Meanwhile, Tasha gave birth on her couch. She recalls that the baby was small, with soft, pink skin.

“Not thinking,” she says, “I grab his hand and he holds my finger.”

Paramedics arrived, bundled the child and took him and Tasha to the hospital.

“Later on,” she says, “I’m in the emergency room and there is what looks like this big pickle jar — my baby.”

There was no mourning. “Imagine 13 like that,” Tasha says. “My mom just goes and buys me an outfit to wear home and we go home and everybody pretends like nothing happened.”

Today, Vaughn is a grandmother, with five children and five grandchildren. Her youngest daughter is 9 and reaching puberty; Vaughn is nervous. She wants to shield her from the traumas of her own childhood.

Vaughn’s memory loss and confusion has stopped her from keeping a job, but with a housing grant through the center, she moved into her own apartment. She visits the center weekly to do laundry.

But as wild as it sounds, she says, if she won the lottery, the first thing she’d do is move back into the Center for the Homeless. It’s a place she feels safe, a place to collect her thoughts — a place to breathe.

Right now, she wants time to think about her purpose in life. “Everybody is like, God saved you for a reason,” Vaughn says. “What was that reason? I’m still waiting to figure that one out.”