Madison Heights

Called to Serve: Ozanam Center steps up for Memphians in need

On June 1 the Ozanam Center hosted its annual open house. While attendees enjoyed a spread of homemade treats and toured the facility, a woman entered seeking a safe place to sleep. Unfortunately, Ozanam's 19 emergency shelter beds were not available that night. Instead, attendees pooled money for a room at Motel 6 until a bed opened up.

Located at 1306 Monroe Avenue and operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's District Council of Memphis, the Ozanam Center has a simple mission — help people in crisis with direct aid and compassionate care. Its volunteer staff offers shelter, meals, financial assistance and connections to additional support for people experiencing homelessness, sudden loss of income, serious illness and other acute needs.

“The purpose of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and its members, Vincentians, is to grow spiritually by serving Jesus [through serving] the poor,” said Richard Peyton, the Memphis district's council president and a Vincentian for 15 years.

Beyond direct aid, the Ozanam Center works to create a space where individuals feel connection and genuine care.

“For a lot of people who are marginalized, it’s good for them to be able to go somewhere they know is safe and friendly," said Peyton. "They can talk to people and make friends. I think that’s important and connection like that is a positive thing for them."

The center is located in Madison Heights, which has a high concentration of low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness. Many of its clients live in the neighborhood.

But recently the area has seen new small business growth, and it's surrounded by Crosstown, Midtown and the larger Medical District, which are all experiencing substantial development and investment. Peyton said growth is needed but has potential to displace low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness.

The center hopes increasing their focus on longer-term solutions like skills training can help vulnerable neighbors find stability alongside the larger community.

"A lot of the people [here] everyday live in subsidized apartments in the area," said Peyton. "I think we can help people grow along with [the neighborhood]."

The Ozanam Center held its annual open house on Saturday, June 1, at 1306 Monroe Avenue. Attendees enjoyed a spread of homemade treats and toured the facility. Society of St. Vincent de Paul's District Council of Memphis president, Richard Peyton, stands at the far right. (Kim Coleman)

Hand up

Founded in 1865, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is one of Memphis’ oldest charitable organizations. Memphians in crisis can seek short-term assistance like help with utilities, rent, mortgage payments and medical bills. Volunteer and open house attendee Debbie Blackwell said it takes an average of three months' assistance for a person to get back on their feet.

The center also connects people to other aid including legal, medical and dental services. Volunteers help with food stamp applications and enrollment in education and training programs provided by partners including Memphis Goodwill.

“There [are] groups who come here to help people out with more than just a meal, trying to give them the chance to get ahead on their own,” said Peyton.

SVDP is currently working with a young mother of four who, until recently, held several jobs. She was laid off from two in quick succession and fell behind on rent and utilities. She's since gotten a new job, is paying her utilities on her own and is in her final month of rent assistance.

“She was falling through the cracks,” said Blackwell. “She’s been a shining star in the program. So one more month of paying her rent, and she’ll be back on her feet and independent. That’s the goal."

Center of service

The Ozanam Center's free overnight shelter is part of Room in the Inn, a collaboration of faith organizations that provide volunteers and rotating shelter locations.

Ozanam Center welcomes guests three to four nights a week and provides dinner, clothes, shoes, linens and toiletries. Each week roughly 50 volunteers strive to give guests a dignified and enjoyable experience.

“[The center] really gears toward trying to make people happy. Part of that is pampering them just a little bit,” said Blackwell.

They display clothes and shoes like a retail store so guests feel like they're shopping and offer laundry service, showers and space to relax. There's a room for families with toys and an infant bed and a private room for sick or recovering guests. Many guests return frequently.

“We get to know their situations," said Blackwell. "It becomes personal, and we become friends."

The Ozanam Center hosts the SVDP food mission which serves a hot lunch to an average 150-175 people each day, many of whom are seniors and low-income Madison Heights residents.

The kitchen operates year-round from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and is one of only two such kitchens open daily. Diners can also shop the shelter's clothes and supplies.

Events like the June 1 open house are important for communicating the center's vital role and funding its work. The bulk of the center's funding comes from SVDP's largest nationwide fundraising event, its Friends of the Poor Walk. The 2019 Memphis walk is slated for September 14 at Christian Brothers High School. Peyton said last year's Memphis walk raised over $55,000.

Ozanam Center volunteers serve diners a hot meal provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's District Council of Memphis food mission. (Ziggy Mack)

At home in Madison Heights

Part of the larger Medical District, Madison Heights is located between Poplar and Union avenues, McNeil Street and Interstate 240. According to PolicyMap and the U.S. Census, Madison Heights is a persistent poverty tract with a median household income of $25,688, compared to $38,230 for Memphis as a whole.

“A lot of people around here are not working or get so little on Social Security benefits that if we can feed them everyday it can help them get by," said Peyton. "It’s good we’re a part of the neighborhood and get to help people here."

Many people experiencing homelessness are drawn to the area by its clustering of support services. SVPD also notes ongoing redevelopment in Downtown has pushed people experiencing homelessness east into Midtown and the Medical District.

Related: "Newly opened health clinic provides free services to the homeless population of Memphis"

Peyton notes the Medical District is growing. Established entities in Madison Heights like Utopia Animal Hospital and Methodist University Hospital are thriving and expanding and new businesses including Phillip Ashley Chocolates and Riko's Kickin Chicken have moved in.

“I think these [developments] will spur more apartment growth and things like that," said Peyton. "... it’s been a slow process. But I think we’ll see more people moving into this area."

But for Ozanam Center's clients, renewed interest in Madison Heights could potentially lead to a loss of affordable housing, rising retail prices, increased policing and other mechanism of gentrification and displacement.

Peyton said the center is increasing programming with longer-term impacts like training and education programs and employment connects so clients have more opportunities to improve their personal economics alongside the neighborhood.

"You can only imagine that in the long-run [revitalization] is more than likely going to hinder [our clients]," he said. "But by the time that happens, we're going to hopefully be at a whole new level of systemic change [compared to] what we're doing right now with emergency needs."
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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.