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Jim and Carol Clarkson (Photo by James Allen Walker)

A St. Louis refuge

Effective Compassion | Our Midwest region runner-up is a rescue mission in St. Louis, Mo.

Issue: "De-coding Morsi," July 28, 2012

ST. LOUIS, Mo.-At 5 p.m. men trickle in the side door of the old, four-story brick headquarters of Sunshine Ministries, a rescue mission in St. Louis. They put coats, wallets, and pocket contents into clear plastic bags for the night, grab coffee, and sit down to wait for dinner, chatting like old friends.

One problem is that some are old friends: They've been eating and sleeping here for years, instead of leaving homelessness behind. Tim, wearing a gray sweater and glasses, is a regular who says he makes $55 a week donating blood. He complains that St. Louis has the lowest paying plasma centers in the nation. Kevin, with tattooed arms, is a newcomer. He's hoping to get on disability for what he calls mental reasons. He says Sunshine's shelter is "top-notch," and has great food but strict rules.

Blame the rules and food on Bryan Polk, the shelter's sympathetic but nonsense-intolerant chef. While cooking up a meal of hamburgers, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn, Polk explains that he kicks men out of the shelter for cursing, fighting, or trying to eat without attending chapel. Some he bans for failing to shower before bedtime: The more hygienic clients squeal on them. Polk exhibits a dismissal list with dozens of names and Social Security numbers: "If I put you on that list, it's because you've been warned several times."

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During dinner, some men sit close to the kitchen so they can be first in line for seconds and thirds. When food runs out, old-timers know the drill: They move to the opposite side of the dining room, where a cross hangs behind a wooden lectern. Tonight's speaker, James Dunbar, exhorts the men to lean on the strength of Christ: "I was a drug addict. I was a sinner. But God stepped in at the just the right time."

"Amen!" some shouted as he preached. People in St. Louis' Old North neighborhood have shouted "amen" at Sunshine for more than a century. Founded as a soup kitchen in 1903, Sunshine soon opened its doors to the homeless and nowadays gives away groceries and educates preschoolers. Like 231 other members of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions that also deserve recognition, Sunshine provides physical support for the downtrodden-but getting the downtrodden to change habits can be a challenge.

Sunshine directors Jim and Carol Clarkson know that breaking generational patterns of dependency requires more than evening chapel. When the husband and wife took leadership of the organization in 1996, they launched a 13-month recovery program designed to help men drop addictions, improve their attitudes, and write resumés. But right now only three men are in the program.

One of the men Sunshine truly helped is Irvin Easley, who one night was cold, numb, and soaked by a freezing rain. Easley, middle-aged and newly homeless, had sold his guns and gloves to buy drugs. Now he waited to collect crack cocaine from a 19-year-old. As Easley tried to light a wet Benson & Hedges cigarette, it finally hit him: His lifestyle of getting high on drugs and robbing the drug dealers he followed home from nightclubs was about to land him in penitentiary or a grave.

Easley knew about Sunshine because he had picked up free bags of groceries there-but what had enabled him to continue in misery he now, finally, saw as a road to change. After three days at a detox center, he slept one night at Sunshine's recovery dormitory and awoke feeling hungry and peaceful. He shared secrets about his past with a "conservative, Republican, white" counselor, He began overcoming his "dirty mouth" and his mistrust toward others.

Easley's road back was long, but seven years after his descent into homelessness the 53-year-old makes $21.37 an hour doing historical renovation. As an addict, Easley quarreled with his dad about every subject except baseball. Now he visits him in a nursing home: "To see the joy in his eyes when I come ... it's really good."

The Clarksons want to prod more shelter clients down the same path of accountability Easley walked. They plan to begin construction soon on a 22,000-square-foot dormitory that will replace the shelter and turn 50 homeless men into residents, with assigned caseworkers. Sunshine is prepared to build debt free, with $5 million already in the bank.

Jim Clarkson said the most discouraging part of his job is when clients who have temporarily gotten their lives in order later "walk out on you" and relapse into old habits: One recovery program graduate, he heard recently, had gone to Memphis, Tenn., and started hanging out with the wrong crowd. But the rewarding part, when lives truly change long-term, is priceless.

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