Serving a vulnerable population
A conversation with Mike O'Connor, executive director of Carpenter's Place
Jim Killam
July 18, 2023

A donation drive at First Free the next two Sundays benefits Carpenter’s Place, a faith-based day shelter serving homeless people. The center, located at 1149 Railroad Ave., serves breakfast and lunch every day, and offers a variety of other services including case management and several offsite housing units.

To get an idea of the impact the donated items have, we spoke with Executive Director Michael O’Connor. Formerly with Prairie State Legal Services, Mike has served in this new role for just over a year.

What might surprise people about Carpenter’s Place?

We don’t have a full kitchen. The fact that somehow we’ve been doing this for 20-some years … all of the meals are from individuals, churches, other organizations. They’re bringing them in prepared, pretty well ready to go. We have the ability reheat something with roaster pans or hot plates, but even that we can’t do too fast. All of the meals that we provide here are in turn provided to us by volunteers. And it works.

How many people do you serve on a typical day?

We’ve been averaging about 80 people a day—from a low of around 60 to days when we might be bumping 100. In the last couple of months there have been quite a few new faces. In May there were 65 or 70 people we were seeing for the first time.

What’s the male/female breakdown?

Roughly 25 to 30 percent of our guests are women. They have all the same challenges of any other homeless person, plus an added level of vulnerability. They don’t want to, but just about all of them carry some sort of self-defense item. One of them has a rubber mallet. Another has a screwdriver.

That’s a reminder of how dangerous being homeless can be for someone, isn’t it?

Among the folks who are homeless, there is a community among a lot of them. They look out for each other. And they know what resources are available from which of the providers at any point in time.

What’s the importance of donation drives like the one our church is doing?

We would not exist—we could not begin to do the work—without the steady stream of donations. It varies by season, what the needs are and what we are providing to our guests. But especially in the winter months it’s clothing of all sorts, especially winter gear. Bedding material, backpacks are in such demand. We couldn’t begin to supply those things without all of the donors—the churches and individuals that provide the stuff. 

Has the addition of a thrift store (Carpenter’s Corner) changed this at all for you?

From time to time you hear concern from folks, “Well, if I’m donating to the thrift store, are the guests still getting their needs met?” Or, “I used to bring everything to the shelter and now you’re telling me to bring it to the thrift store. How is the shelter going to get it?” The thrift store has in no way interfered with our ability to provide the donation services to our guests. It has just changed the flow of the goods. The volume is so much greater now, so all the better.

When we put out a special-needs list, the stuff comes here. But wherever it shows up, we’ll get it to where it needs to be. 

How else has the store affected what you can do?

It has allowed us to give our guests a voucher card, so they can go to the thrift store and pick out their own clothes. The way it used to be most of the time was asking someone what their size was and then one of the case managers would go back and pick it out for them. This adds some dignity now, for someone to be able to pick out what they like.

What are you learning about the needs of homeless people in Rockford?

The hard reality is that there just is not enough housing that is available and affordable. Even with the case manager who is able to work with somebody and help them work the networks, there just is not enough housing. Even with help from a skilled professional who knows how to make the phone calls and navigate where can we get help with the security deposit, it’s difficult to pull someone out of homelessness once they are there because there just is not enough housing to go around.

Mental health is a huge issue, too, right?

Virtually all of our guests have a mental health diagnosis of some sort. It’s just the reality. And if you didn’t have mental health problems, be homeless for a couple of weeks and you will, with the stress and the trauma of all that. 

One of the things we do here in addition to the day room is we operate housing units. We have a property for single men, a property for single women, a property for veterans. One is called mental health housing. It’s a couple of units devoted to folks who have a mental health diagnosis that they’re working with. 

But given the scale of the problem, it must feel overwhelming sometimes.

Well, yeah. I have no fantasy that we are somehow ending homelessness. There’s no end to the need here. Very much the DNA of Carpenter’s place is, we’ll meet you where you are but we’re going to help you to get on the road to self reliance, sustainability, employment. I think that is all laudable and important, but the hard reality is there’s a good percentage of the folks we are serving who just don’t have a place in a competitive economy. Often this is not a person for whom employment is going to be successful or more education is going to get them there. 

Is other help available to them?

The sad thing is, a lot of these folks are disabled. If they were receiving the benefits of the programs that are out there that are supposed to serve the disabled—if they just had Social Security and Medicaid—they’re not going to be wealthy, but that would be enough resources to fundamentally change their circumstances and most of them would not have to be homeless. 

If you’re homeless and you’re not able to get your mail, to stay on top of things, to keep appointments, to make it to a doctor’s appointment … all of those things contribute.

A good chunk of those people are eligible for benefit programs, but the system is basically set up to only approve those most clear-cut cases. If you’re not one of those and you’re going to go through an appeal process, that takes a long time to get someone to take a serious look at your case. 

What does the spiritual aspect look like day-to-day at Carpenter’s Place?

It’s fairly pervasive. The religious motivation and direction … none of that is subtle in any way. That said, you’ve got to meet people where they are. We start every morning with the team prayer and some element of that is, give us patience and give us kindness that we can be God’s hands and feet as we are interacting with our guests. 

When we start the meal at lunch time, we’ll ask if anybody would like to lead prayer. And one of our guests will do it and it’s just incredibly moving.

What sorts of volunteer opportunities do you have?

There are just the direct logistics of keeping the place running. We need volunteers here to help sort and process the donations that come in. There are paperwork jobs. We run this big building and several other properties for housing so there is always maintenance and annual spruce up and things like that. We have three laundry machines that are basically running all the time for our guests. Volunteers are coming in and doing that. Volunteers are preparing and serving the meals. 

How did the pandemic change your volunteer situation?

Just the way we feel and look and operate. Previously there were a lot of volunteers on the property all the time—interacting with guests, leading Bible studies, leading devotions, doing one-on-one mentoring. COVID put the brakes on all of that. Rebuilding that has been a challenge.

There’s lots of room for creativity and people just coming in here and using their skills. For example, we have an art room. Right now we have a couple that one day a week leads an arts and crafts session. That’s something I would love to see happening every day.

For more about volunteering, giving or just learning more about Carpenter’s Place, see their website.

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


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