For more than two decades, the Interfaith Homeless Outreach Council has helped hundreds of men on the streets of Camden.

Now, the council's outreach program in the city finds itself homeless.

Last summer's abrupt closing of the New Visions Homeless Day Shelter  in South Camden forced the council out of its office space there.

And with cold weather coming, the leaders, volunteers and clients alike say the council — showcased in the  recent WNET-TV documentary Getting off the Streets — needs to find a new home in the city, and soon. So far, two potential sites have fallen through.

Losing the office at 555 Atlantic Ave. in South Camden "has absolutely impaired" the council's operations,said executive director Ruth Morgenroth said.

"People come through the program who may have relapsed and just need someone to talk to," and may not know where to find or how to contact the council, she said.

Most clients are middle-aged or older men, although young opioid users sometimes contact the council for help. Older clients often have struggled for decades with drug or alcohol addiction, or both, and are    experiencing not only homelessness, but mental or physical health issues, as well. With their bridges to family and friends burned, they survive on the streets by being wary of everybody — including those offering help.

"When we lost our office space we lost the opportunity to see homeless people every day, to let them get to know us so they feel safe talking to us," said Morgenroth, whom clients call "Miss Ruth."

I spoke to her Friday at Dambly House, the council's transitional living facility in Lawnside. Intake and other services are temporarily being offered there, "but I need to be where the people are, and they're in the city," said case manager Sonya Jacobs.

The requirements are pretty minimal: A door that locks, a room that offers privacy for clients — that's hard to come by at Dambly House — and "a desk and a filing cabinet," said Jacobs.

A location downtown near where homeless people tend to gather, or adjacent to another homeless services provider, would be best.

"It's nice out here," Jacobs said. "But they don't know we're here, or they don't have transportation to get here."

Some referrals arrive via the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers. And the council's annual Homeless Hospitality Network, its signature program, will begin as scheduled on Nov. 4.

"It's for men who have expressed a desire, and convinced Sonya. they're ready to turn their lives around,"  Morgenroth said. "They've reached bottom. It's a do-or-die situation for them."

For 28 weeks, clients are housed for successive two-week periods in churches outside of the city. Some of the churches are original members of a group that established the council in 1991.

Clients in the network program must remain clean and sober and attend 12-Step meetings. They also are offered counseling, assistance finding work, and other services.

The goal is to provide men who want to stop drinking and using a safe harbor from their old haunts during the fragile earliest days of recovery.

Even nearly a dozen clean-and-sober years later, I tell Morgenroth, I can remember those days vividly.

"And I'm sure you had support systems some of these guys didn't have," she noted, accurately.

At Dambly House, rules ("No butlers or maids are at your service") and AA slogans decorate the tidy kitchen. Up to five graduates of the hospitality network program live there at any one time.

"I was strung out on dope and alcohol," said resident Milton Futch, 60, recalling why he sought help in 2017 — and why he hopes to see the council's office back in the city soon.

"I was so depressed, it didn't seem like it was worth living," he said. "Someone told me to go talk to Sonia. I just met her, but I felt like I could tell her anything. I couldn't wait to get into the program."

Clean and sober since November,  Futch is working, saving money, and offering to pay bus fare for friends on the street who want to come to Dambly House and talk to Jacobs.

"Guys on the street don't like to leave their territory of a three or four block radius," he said. "Going any further is like going to Mexico."

Said fellow Dambly resident Bill Lowery, 62: "People need a comfort zone where there's somebody to talk to who can lead them in the right direction."

Interfaith Homeless Outreach Council client Van Johnson hugs IHOC Executive Director Ruth Morgenroth.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
Interfaith Homeless Outreach Council client Van Johnson hugs IHOC Executive Director Ruth Morgenroth.