News: Parishes help Joppa serve the homeless

April 13, 2021

Person serving food

When a homeless man was found dead in early February in Des Moines, temperatures had dipped to nearly 6 degrees below zero.

Joe Stevens, co-founder of Joppa, a non-profit assisting homeless in Des Moines, said though volunteers with his group did not know the homeless man personally, they had seen him at Joppa events. The pain of his death cut deep.

“It was very sad and a sense of a deep loss,” said Stevens. “We lost one of our folks – and what could we have done differently to help prevent that?”

Joppa helps the homeless access resources, transitional housing, peer support, food and much more.

The organization receives a large amount of volunteer support and donations from members of St. Boniface Parish in Waukee and Assumption Parish in Granger.

Every December, Joppa holds its annual memorial service outside the Capitol to honor those who died homeless. The service is followed by a Christmas party and dinner in the East Village, run by a small army of volunteers from Assumption Parish.

Assumption parishioner and volunteer Joe Henkel said the parish raises money to purchase the turkey, stuffing, all the fixings and dessert.  

“We do all of the cooking, the serving and everything,” Henkel said. “Our biggest dinner was 570 meals.

“It’s so rewarding,” Henkel said. “Joppa is the equivalent of the washing of the feet. You’re helping people you may never see again. They need a hand and you can do your part.”

Henkel loves the personal interactions.       

“There’s such a stigma. You get to meet them and understand that they are regular people with a different situation,” he said.

 Tracy Wilson, a member of St. Boniface Parish in Waukee, said she and her daughter in high school, Jade, find meaning and fulfillment through their work with JOPPA.

“Some people try to justify [not getting involved] and say they are lazy,” Wilson said. “But knowing there’s so much more [to the story behind homelessness.] And now everywhere you go you see it…. You can’t un-see it.”

The Wilsons help by offering support and delivering food to those in Joppa’s transitional housing through the Circle of Friends program.  

Stevens is grateful for the volunteers and parishes who help with their homeless ministry.

In the past 5-10 years, volunteers contributed 30-40,000 hours annually. Because of the pandemic, the number of volunteers was cut in half, but time donated in 2020 was still at 33,500 hours.

Volunteers support the work of Joppa by rescuing food (over 100,000 pounds per year) to volunteering at one of their five annual events, gardening, technology work or writing.

Their faith is central to everything they do.

“We used to talk about how we were totally dependent on God – and we still do that,” Stevens continued. “We know we are doing things beyond our own means and we wouldn’t be able to achieve what we are doing [by ourselves]. I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t just turn it all over to God.

“This is a calling,” Stevens said. “We feel that God revealed his purpose for [my wife and son’s] lives, and this is the reason why we were born.”

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Joppa’s Circle of Friends is key to helping people stay off the streets

 When Joppa encounters homeless individuals who want help getting off the streets, the non-profit forms a client relationship and helps them create a plan, said Joe Stevens, Joppa co-founder.

This includes finding transitional housing, providing a welcome basket with personal care items, assist them in finding a job and/or improving their skill set, and helping them access resources available to them, including transportation to and from the offices they need to visit to make that happen.

Joppa then forms a Circle of Friends for that individual to offer friendship, support and regular interactions with people who care.

Parishioners at St. Boniface Parish in Waukee have been heavily involved in the Circle of Friends and welcome baskets. They also have many volunteers crocheting mats out of plastic bags for the homeless.

“I must say that the soul of St. Boniface exists for others,” said Father Devaraj Chinnepan, pastor. “There’s something about St. Boniface – if I mentioned a need, there was always somebody who stepped out and said, ‘We’ll help that person.’ Even during the pandemic.”             

Getting a parish involved often just takes the courage of one or two people to step out and get the ball rolling, said Joe Henkel, Joppa volunteer from Assumption Parish in Granger.

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