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Being Unhoused Does Not Mean Homeless

A ministry of spiritual retreats for adults in recovery

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If you were tortured, would you be able to crack a joke?

St. Lawrence (patron: comedians, barbecues) kept his sense of humor even at the point of death. In the third century, he was one of only seven deacons serving the pope in Rome. We know the story: the times were volatile, and a Roman official asked Lawrence to bring him all the Church’s treasures. Three days later he brought to the official the lame, crippled, blind and poor of Rome, saying, “Behold these poor persons, the treasures which I promised to show you.” His action led to a brutal death by being burned alive (and his famous wisecrack comment at mid-point — “Turn me over, I am done on this side”). Every Aug. 10, we celebrate the feast of St. Lawrence, and this year it’s good for us to be reminded of the true riches of the Church.

I think witnessing the riches of the Church (the poor, marginalized, disenfranchised) is a reason I engage in an important ministry in which I invite my fellow deacons to get involved. Along with a set of group volunteers, I am part of a team that offers spiritual (Christian, not exclusively Catholic) retreats for homeless men in substance abuse/alcohol recovery.

Spiritual retreats are offered through a national nonprofit called the Ignatian Spirituality Project ( Ignatian Spirituality Project was founded more than 25 years ago, serves 20 U.S. cities, has a core volunteer base of 600 and in 2023 offered almost 2,300 overnight retreats and over 4,700 spiritual reflection sessions to 20,000 men and women who are unhoused (also referred to as homeless). These individuals are part of the riches/jewels from our cities and towns.

Quick Definition for Clarity

Before I go further, let’s clear something up. Don’t call the homeless homeless. They are not without a home. First and foremost, they have a home with God. Jesus welcomes us all, cares for us, and we all live with him. I know, you are probably thinking, but they are “homeless on earth.” True, they do not have a permanent dwelling. They do not have a structure we call a “house” that we make a “home.”

But they are not homeless. They are not less because they do not have a dwelling. It’s odd, using the term homeless seems to be the one politically incorrect term permitted to be used. Persons without a house are not less than a human. Many create a home with other unhoused persons in the community.

Let’s call them “unhoused.” They are the riches and jewels that St. Lawrence found in Rome centuries ago.

The Numbers

Across the United States in late 2023, the Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part 1 reported that there are approximately 653,100 unhoused adults, and more than 60% are men.

In Illinois (my home state), for instance, on any given night there are 65,000 unhoused adults — this number is greater than the populations of cities such as Skokie, Palatine, Des Plaines, Orland Park, Tinley Park, Wheaton, Downers Grove, and more than twice the size of my hometown, Lisle. That’s more than Union City, Piscataway or New Brunswick in New Jersey; more than Utica, White Plains or Hempstead in New York; more than Santa Cruz, San Clemente, Palo Alto, or Lynwood in California; more than Palm Beach, North Miami or Delray Beach in Florida. Need I give more examples? Imagine, if all these city residents were unhoused anytime, every night. Why are these riches and jewels left out every night?

My Journey, My Role

Before I began diaconal formation, the chief executive officer of the Ignatian Spirituality Project invited me to engage in monthly reflections with local unhoused persons around our DePaul University campus church, St. Vincent de Paul in Chicago. Every morning, the unhoused came for a hot breakfast-to-go and a sandwich-bag lunch. Once a month, they were invited to gather in a rectory room and to reflect in a small group on a term or concept — for example, hope, trust, beauty, love, faith, etc. — related to their faith life. I found the experience overwhelming and moving, and I was hungry for more.

Then, I learned that the Ignatian Spirituality Project held monthly Saturday reflections. Adults from local shelters would gather for singing, drumming, a witness talk and small group discussion on a topic, as well as breakfast and lunch. We were joined by another nonprofit group that formed a chorus with the unhoused who would sing at local community events. Awesome. I knew the diaconate (to serve those riches that society omits and ignores) was my calling.

During these monthly meetings, I learned they offered quarterly weekend overnight retreats (Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon) at local retreat centers, for women and men (sometimes at the same weekend location, but always separate to make both groups comfortable to share with others). I wanted to be part of that giving team.

Mother and child
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Through donations, the Ignatian Spirituality Project funds these retreats for unhoused persons who reside at city shelters.

In preparation, weeks before the retreat weekend, shelter staff were informed of the date and the Ignatian Spirituality Project staff coordinated getting persons to register. On the Saturday morning of the retreat, volunteers drive to a shelter and pick up guests who register for the weekend. At the retreat center, guests have a private bedroom, community restrooms and cooked meals. For over 10 years at these retreats, I still am excited to witness guests renew their faith.

As part of the retreat team, I provide Saturday sessions (all scripted/planned) on fear vs. trust, focusing on how we need to let go and let others know our true selves. Another session focuses on healing memories from past traumas. At one ritual, while standing, each man drops a stone into a bowl of water letting go of his hurt; then another man stands silently praying for that man while placing his hand gently on the man’s shoulder. True, there were a few prayer sessions and Scripture readings. And there were lots of affirmations and sharing as we met one another where we happened to be in our spiritual journey toward a Higher Power (God), and lots of laughs. On Saturday night the men pick a new DVD movie to watch. For 36 hours, I find myself in the presence of the treasures of the Church with the city’s unhoused.

Message for Deacons

St. Ambrose, while writing about St. Lawrence, noted that “the ministry of charity in which the deacon is deputed by ordination is not limited to service at table or … the spiritual works of mercy. The diaconal service of charity must include imitation of Christ by means of unconditional self-giving since he is the fruitful witness” (St. Lawrence, Proto-Deacon of the Rome Church by Father Francesco Moraglia).

St. Lawrence kept his humor during difficult times, but he never wavered from knowing that we are here like Christ to serve social outcasts. I invite my fellow deacon brothers to explore the Ignatian Spirituality Project in their community, if there is one nearby. Contact them (or myself) to learn more. Become part of a retreat team or organize parish members to be drivers. Lots of ways to serve await us.

Why should the unhoused just be given shelter and food for a day? Can’t we offer them opportunities to grow in faith, encountering Christ through deacons?

These persons are the riches of the Church, and we must treasure them.

DEACON JOSEPH R. FERRARI, PH.D., is a permanent deacon serving the Joliet diocese parishes of St. Margaret Mary, Naperville, Illinois; and St. Bernard’s, Homer Glen, Illinois. Deacon Joe also is a St. Vincent de Paul Distinguished professor of (social and community) psychology at DePaul University, Chicago.


More about the Ignatian Spirituality Project

Each year, the Ignatian Spirituality Project:

• Provides 65-plus overnight and one-day retreats;

• Offers over 850 spiritual reflections;

• Serves 3,000 individuals in multiple affiliate cities and communities, namely: Atlanta: The Bay Area; Boston; Chicago; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Dayton, Ohio; Denver; Detroit; Houston; Louisville, Kentucky; Montreal; New Orleans; Oklahoma City; Orange County, California; Providence, Rhode Island; Ridgewood, New Jersey; St. Louis; San Diego; Toronto; The Twin Cities; Washington, D.C.

For more information, visit or email


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