Bridging the Opportunity Divide

This Church Found a Brilliant Way to Help Homeless People, and It All Starts with a Mailbox

September 30, 2019
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This Church Found a Brilliant Way to Help Homeless People, and It All Starts with a Mailbox
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The Window offers a place for people experiencing homelessness to connect receive mail and connect with services. Photo courtesy of The Window
A church in San Jose, California, saw its homeless population missing a key facet of getting out of homelessness: an address.

When people think of home, they often focus on what’s inside. But there’s a privilege in having a place to live that’s often forgotten: having a permanent address.

For people experiencing homelessness, an address can be a gateway to gaining that home. Without an address, an individual can’t receive disability benefits, social security payments or veteran’s benefits. They can’t open a bank account, which is often needed to collect earnings from employers. They can’t receive notifications about newly available affordable housing, messages from their children’s school or correspondence from family members

In other words, the resources that homeless people need require an address, but in order to have an address — a home, apartment or place to sleep — the individual needs to first obtain those resources. 

This vicious cycle has come to be known as the Postal Paradox — and leaders at Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, California, saw an opportunity to disrupt it. 

In 1983, the church opened up its reception office so that people experiencing homelessness could have a permanent address to receive mail and use when applying to jobs. Today, the program is called The Window.

“[The Window] is how we keep them connected,” Sharon Miller, the director of Cathedral Social Ministries at Catholic Charities, told NationSwell. “It’s just one small little layer of making a significant difference in someone’s life who doesn’t have a permanent residence.”

Each day, The Window receives hundreds of letters.Photo courtesy of The Window

Throughout the day about 150 people, typically those recently released from the justice system or those experiencing homelessness, stop by the walk-up counter to collect any mail they might have received. Behind the glass panel is a tiny room with rows of mail slots, boxes of sandwiches and workers bustling around.

You’ll find people leaving The Window with bundles of mail. You’ll also find people walking away with a saran-wrapped sandwich or carrying a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of shampoo or a stick of deodorant.

“It’s just making sure that they have some real simple items, that are life-saving items,” Miller said. 

Though it was initially conceived to serve as a permanent address, The Window has since evolved, offering toiletries, food and access to services to those who need it — services like referring individuals to shelters, permanent housing or employment opportunities. The Cathedral Office of Social Ministry also runs a free healthcare clinic, which is accessed through The WIndow. 

“[The Window] really did grow over the years, and now we’re in a state of crisis with homelessness,” Miller explained. 

Homelessness in San Jose is on the rise  — up 42% since 2017. So a resource like The Window is essential to connecting individuals to permanent housing. And although San Jose’s homeless population has increased, Miller said registration rates at the Window are beginning to plateau. 

Miller estimates that about 15 new people register with The Window every week and another 15 find permanent housing, so The Window’s total population has consistently hovered around 920. 

Miller is constantly reminded of why she does this work. She’ll be flagged walking down the street by people she used to help. “Someone will come up and say, ‘Sharon, Sharon, I still have my housing because of what you provided.” And those are the memories that stick. 

So even as homeless rates rise, Miller stays positive. 

“All of us know what we need to do to solve this problem,” she said. “It just isn’t happening quick enough.”

It may seem like just a walk-up window, but inside are connections and opportunities for so much more. 

More: These Parking Lots Give Homeless People a Safe Place to Sleep for the Night

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