Carpenter’s Place: How You Can Help Rockford’s Homeless

It’s no secret Rockford has homeless people, but did you know there’s a new way to help them – and ensure their dignity? A new thrift store from this nonprofit organization aims to make life just a little easier for the homeless.

Mike O’Connor, executive director of Carpenter’s Place, and Jane McGhee, director of guest services, are part of the team that helps Rockford’s homeless population to get whatever support they need.

Anyone who lives in the Rockford region can see there are homeless people among us. So, what do we do about it?

“The need is just so clear,” says Michael O’Connor, executive director of Carpenter’s Place, a nonprofit homeless day center at 1149 Railroad Ave. in Rockford. “Our guests are here, and their needs are immediate.”

O’Connor was a legal aid lawyer for many years, helping underprivileged people with their day-to-day needs through a legal lens – whether that meant helping victims of domestic violence get to safety or helping people facing eviction or foreclosure to keep their housing. But eventually, he wanted to help even further.

“I just knew I wanted a career that allowed me to be more hands-on with helping clients,” he says. “It got to a point where I was so far removed from the day-to-day work, but coming to Carpenter’s Place has certainly changed that. Our clients have immediate needs, so you can get a very hands-on experience.”

The Carpenter’s Place day center on Railroad Avenue in Rockford offers homeless people a place to warm up in winter, cool down in summer and connect with basic needs.

Carpenter’s Place is a low-bar shelter, meaning its doors are always open, and anyone is welcome. The day shelter offers a place for the homeless to get out of the cold or heat, eat a good meal, take a shower, do their laundry, make phone calls, and accomplish other day-to-day necessities.

Al Barsema, a trained carpenter, founded the nonprofit in 2001. He had struggled with homelessness and substance abuse himself, and living the experience gave him insight into what the needs of the homeless actually were.

Eventually, he found himself in a position to help.

“He had this great big building and he turned it into what it is. He made Carpenter’s Place into the day shelter that it is today,” O’Connor says. “Al was very good at being a visionary and connecting with people who could actually help to grow the organization. He was able to engage all sorts of churches and individuals as supporters, so we were able to get a financial base to start growing and offer more services.”

Over the years, Carpenter’s Place has grown from being a simple day shelter to providing housing for its guests. Initially, the shelter provided housing for homeless single men. Now, there are buildings that serve veterans, homeless single women, and homeless families with children.

“So, we’ve acquired properties that have allowed us to add more units to house all of these folks,” O’Connor says. “All of the housing is transitional, which means no one is intended to live here permanently. But, the housing provides stability for up to two years while folks get on their feet and ultimately become independent, self-supporting and stable.”

Carpenter’s Place has grown yet again by opening a thrift shop last March at 1715 Rural St. in Rockford. The thrift shop serves multiple purposes by receiving donations of clothing and household items from the public.

First and foremost, when members of the public buy items at the thrift store, that revenue is a source of support for Carpenter’s Place. In addition, the homeless can peruse the store to pick out items they want.

The new Carpenter’s Place thrift store, on Rural Street in Rockford, is open to the public and homeless people who use the group’s day shelter.

“Before we had the thrift store, our only option was to go to our own stock in the back and give folks whatever clothing we had,” O’Connor says. “Now, we’re able to give our guests a whole lot more dignity. There’s something to be said for being able to pick out your own clothing. It gives a sense of autonomy.”

The thrift store also provides an opportunity for guests to develop employment skills. Oftentimes, the homeless have been separated from the workforce for a long period of time, O’Connor says. The thrift store provides an opportunity for the homeless to rejoin the workforce and develop important skills.

“Some people thought because we have the thrift store, we no longer provide clothing, bedding and toiletries to our guests, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” O’Connor adds. “The thrift store provides an even larger stream of donations to meet our guests’ needs even better. If you give us clothing, it could end up being sold, or it could end up being chosen by one of our guests.”

Overall, Carpenter’s Place is meant to meet people where they are. If all someone wants is a meal, then that’s what they get – no strings attached, no further demands.

But, if someone becomes more and more of a regular presence as the weeks go by, O’Connor and his staff may ask that person to engage in case management.

“Sometimes you have to offer it multiple times before they actually do it,” he adds.

Case management begins with meeting one-on-one for a detailed, extensive interview. A case manager at Carpenter’s Place will ask about the person’s history, education, family, religion, health and more.

“It’s really a guided interview to make sure we’re covering all of the bases, so we can figure out a person’s priorities, objectives and goals,” O’Connor says. “Sometimes, there’s an element of helping a person to think that through. As you do that interview and work with the person, you develop a plan. What are the priorities? What is achievable? What are the short-term and long-term plans? We get all of that in writing and share it with our guest to make sure we’re on the same page, and then we essentially work through that list.”

Initially, case managers see their clients on a weekly basis. But as the client makes progress over time, those meetings become less and less frequent. Some people eventually “graduate” from Carpenter’s Place and no longer require any of its services. But for most people, there’s an ongoing relationship with Carpenter’s Place for years. The doors are always open, and the staff is always welcoming.

Oftentimes, substance abuse treatment and/or mental health care is necessary.

“To be clear, we don’t have counselors or substance abuse treatment on staff,” O’Connor says. “But, in most cases, substance abuse is an element, whether it’s a current challenge or it’s part of a person’s history. And as for mental illness, at least at a low level, anyone who is homeless for a period of time has mental illness creep into the picture. Our case managers identify what’s going on, what is the history, and what is the need for treatment, and then we connect folks to resources and provide them with support to stay engaged.”

Typically, the stability of housing and transportation from Carpenter’s Place allows people to meaningfully engage in treatment.

“It’s hard to regularly engage in mental health care if your every day is figuring out how to feed yourself and have a safe place to sleep that night,” O’Connor points out.

Carpenter’s Place is always in need of ongoing support. The organization receives a small amount of government funding from various grants that support its housing programs, but the majority of funding comes from individual and institutional givers, like churches.

“Monetary donations are most valuable to us because nothing else pays salary and the rent,” O’Connor says.

Carpenter’s Corner

But beyond that, there are also many physical needs for guests, such as clothing and toiletries.
“We have ongoing communication on our website to let the community know what we need,” O’Connor says. “We also need donations of clothing and household items that can go toward supporting the thrift store.”

Finally, Carpenter’s Place needs more volunteers. The day shelter provides so many important resources for day-to-day living, but guests also need to feel connected with the community beyond the basis of physical needs, O’Connor says.

“So, for example, we have an arts and crafts room, and we have volunteers who come in once a week to do an activity with our guests,” O’Connor adds. “It’s a wonderful way to spend a few hours just being creative. It feeds their soul in a way that just wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

When COVID happened, volunteers were restricted for quite some time. But now, Carpenter’s Place is fully open again to volunteers. The challenge now is for the organization is to build back up to what it was pre-pandemic.

“Our doors are open, and we’d love to have volunteers in all sorts of capacities, whether it’s leading devotions, leading Bible studies, leading one-on-one mentoring, doing crafts – I would love to have some music programming going on here,” O’Connor says. “All of those things are really important to our guests. All the folks who are regular volunteers – it just feeds their soul. It’s a way to serve and be useful and help your fellow man.”