By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
BURLINGTON —Robert Lopez was over the moon excited about welcoming Bishop Thomas Zinkula to Transitions DMC, the shelter that is Lopez’ temporary home. Equally excited were Transitions’ founders, Craig Fenton and Sara Dittner, staff and volunteers, and guests who are staying at the shelter that long ago served as a creamery.
Bishop Zinkula blessed the shelter and its chapel during a prayer service July 26 and stayed for lunch and a tour afterwards. “Whatever we do to the least among us, those who are most in need, we do for him,” the bishop said during the prayer service. “In his rule, St. Benedict reminded his monks that to welcome the stranger as a guest into the monastery was to welcome Christ. Transitions DMC is part of a rich heritage, a tradition of care and concern, running back 5,000 years.”
Fenton’s “faith has given him the hearty resolve to respond to an outstanding unmet community need. Support to those experiencing homelessness in Burlington is stronger because of Transitions DMC,” said Deacon Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and Catholic Charities.
Transitions DMC (Divine Mercy of Christ) opened its doors for people in need of shelter Jan. 20. This labor of love, as Fenton describes Transitions, has provided “a public ministry to help the homeless and poor of southeast Iowa, especially Des Moines County,” for six years. “Our name says our mission — Transitions of the human spirit and conditions through the Divine Mercy of Christ.”
The 13-bed shelter has provided a temporary home to more than 85 adults and four children since its opening. Guests have stayed overnight for as short as one day and as long as 76 days. Burlington has one other homeless shelter, but Transitions is a low-barrier shelter, accepting all who seek shelter, unless they are violent.
Financial donations and volunteer labor made it possible to convert the building that previously housed an automotive business and then a pawnshop after the creamery closed. The Transitions team strove to create a homelike atmosphere.
Fenton, Transitions’ president, thanked the Davenport Diocese, Divine Mercy Parish-Burlington/ West Burlington, and its Catholic Charities committee, Knights of Columbus, St. Vincent De Paul and area churches that have contributed to making this outreach possible. Transitions also offers showers, laundry, meals, day warming and cooling services, assistance with IDs and documents to help people find jobs and permanent housing.
“We’ve had 13 people here most nights,” Fenton told Bishop Zinkula before the prayer service. “The hospital sends a lot of people to us and we have people coming out of rehab or halfway houses and the jail system. We have men and women and, right now, we have a family here.” Ideally, guests move on after 30 days, but that isn’t always enough time for people to work through their challenges, he and Dittner, Transitions’ executive director, said.
Transitions is working on grant applications for permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing, which would boost the ability of people who are homeless to obtain jobs and housing so that they can thrive on their own, Fenton said.
Networking with other social service and governmental agencies, Transitions has assisted 15 people in finding steady employment; 15 have moved into permanent housing with relatives or friends; two live in site homes and 15 moved into their own apartments, Dittner said. The nonprofit also assists with applications for Social Security cards or replacements, birth certificates, ID cards, medical cards and food stamps. Staff and volunteers assist with transportation to doctor appointments and completing rental apartment applications.
In the small chapel that holds 15 people, Bishop Zinkula led the prayer service, assisted by Deacon Gary Johnson of Divine Mercy Parish and Deacon Andrew Reif of St. Mary Parish in Dodgeville. Other clergy present were Father Marty Goetz, pastor of both parishes; Father Denis Hatungimana, parochial vicar; Father Dan Dorau, who previously served the parishes; and Deacon Ferris.
Deacon Johnson proclaimed the Gospel, the story of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). During the intercessions, he prayed, “For those who call this place home for a while; who will pray in this chapel, dine with us, and sleep here. That they might find rest and peace under this roof.”
“This is exciting for me,” Lopez said after the prayer service, taking photos on his smartphone. “I grew up Catholic, I was an altar boy,” he added, shaking hands with Father Dorau. Lopez praised Transitions for restoring his sense of hope. “I was suicidal, alcoholic, I wanted to die. I didn’t want to live. Once I got out of rehab, I didn’t know where to go.” Now employed, he is looking for an apartment. “I have the support. I want to live. That is amazing. These guys really helped. I’m indebted to them forever.”
Among the people Lopez appreciates is Deacon Johnson, who offers a ministry of presence on Monday nights. The deacon started that ministry during his diaconate internship before the shelter opened. Participants met in another building. His “popular pizza and support group was very helpful to those struggling with addiction or life issues,” Fenton said. “When God sent us Gary, there was the Holy Spirit working through him.”
Joe Spillane, a retired shop teacher and Transitions’ board member, gave Bishop Zinkula a tour of the building after the gathered guests ate a hearty lunch of ham, mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls. Spillane builds the shelter’s bunk beds. He invites men at the shelter to help him assemble them. “I pray to St. Joseph that the dignity of the work comes through,” he said. “Everybody responds to goodness. These guys do.”
“We are like a family and we act like family members,” said Dittner, who believes God called her to Transitions. She feels invested in all of the people who seek shelter here. “If anyone wants to talk to me, I want to be available to them.”
Donna Darey, a Transitions board member and staffer, explains her commitment. “It’s like the Gospel said today (July 26), whenever you help, you’re helping Christ.”
Transitions DMC, a 13-bed shelter for people without a home, located in Burlington, depends on donations to maintain its operation and services. Craig Fenton, a member of Divine Mercy Parish-Burlington/West Burlington and Transitions’ president, asks that donations be sent to Transitions DMC, 515 S. Main St., Burlington, IA, 52601 or through the website at transitionsdmc.org.