“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In April and May, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Give Drink to the Thirsty” and “Shelter the Homeless,” respectively. These months’ profiles will highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives. View the full series listing here.
Gina Ireland served in the Army for nine years, beginning in 2006. During her time in the military she travelled Europe during a deployment abroad, had a daughter, and assisted wounded warriors coming home from overseas while stationed in Washington D.C. Her final assignment was in Alaska, far from the Egg Harbor Township home where she grew up.
It was in Alaska where Ireland’s troubles began. She met and married her husband there, but the relationship soon disintegrated. Concerned for her daughter’s wellbeing she decided to leave.
She packed everything she could fit into her car, a Nissan Altima, along with her two dogs, a cat and her daughter, and began the long drive home – a 3,000-mile journey from Alaska back to the Jersey shore. It was August, 2015 and the trip took seven days.
“I had nothing. I had no money, I had nothing,” Ireland said. “I had what I fit in my car, my animals and my daughter.”
Her plan had been to stay with friends until she could find a job and get back on her feet. But the friend who had agreed to take her in told her she needed to move out within a month. She bounced around between the homes of other friends, stayed a few nights in hotels, even slept in her car once or twice. She was effectively homeless.
“It’s something that I never wanted her to have to experience,” Ireland said of her daughter, who is now eight.
When she first found out she was about to become homeless, she went to the local Board of Social Services to see what public assistance was available to her. There she was warned that if she became homeless with her daughter, she would be in danger of losing her. She never went back.
She turned instead to the Department of Veterans Affairs and was referred from there to Catholic Charities Veteran Services program. She met her caseworker, Nelson Gonzalez, a fellow veteran, in November.
“I was really impressed with how motivated she was,” Gonzalez said. “She never gave up, knowing she needed assistance for herself and her family. She knew what she had to do and she wasn’t ashamed. A lot of veterans are. We’re taught not to show that we’re broken in any way.”
Within 24 hours of learning she had been approved for assistance, Ireland had found an apartment. Catholic Charities’ program was able to provide her with a security deposit and two months of rent. It was enough to get her back on her feet. She now lives in the apartment with her brother, his young son and her daughter.
“Now both of us have jobs. We still struggle but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was. Just having a roof over our head and some beds to lay on is great,” Ireland said. “My daughter has somewhere that she can call home now.”
When Ireland moved into her apartment, she had little other than clothes. Gonzalez reached out to his network of veterans organizations, VFW’s and American Legions in his service area. The response was overwhelming. Organizations and individuals pitched in everything from donated, brand new furniture to pots and pans to Christmas toys for the children and a Christmas dinner.
“I had literally hundreds of emails coming in, asking ‘What can we do to help? What is it that you need?’ It was very overwhelming,” Ireland said.
Today Ireland supports her family by working at Wawa and dreams of one day going back to school to study law.
The Veteran Services program at Catholic Charities serves close to 700 veterans and their family members per year in all six of the southernmost New Jersey counties covered by the Diocese of Camden. Depending on the time of year, Gonzalez can work with anywhere from 15 to 40 veteran clients a month in his service area of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.
“Every day when I wake up I have the opportunity and the privilege to assist a fellow veteran to get back on their feet, hold their head up high again, and that’s more rewarding for me than anything else. Just seeing them succeed,” Gonzalez said.
On Saturday, May 21 Gina Ireland will be one of the veteran speakers at Catholic Charities Barbecue with Veteran Services. The event is an opportunity for parishioners to learn more about the issue of veteran homelessness and Catholic Charities’ program, while engaging in meaningful ‘encounter,’ in the spirit of Pope Francis, with those the agency serves. The barbecue will begin at 1 pm at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, 43 W Maple Ave., Merchantville, rain or shine. More information at CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Mercy.
The mercy of sheltering the homeless
In February, 1988, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released the document “What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother? The Church And The Housing Problem” to lay out the Church’s position on just housing distribution. It was released in honor of the UN’s International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987. The document argues that decent housing is a universal human right and calls for a reexamination of the structural causes of the “scandal” of homelessness around the world.
The concern of the Church for housing and its insistence in calling for decent housing for all flows from three considerations:
- Adequate housing is important if a person is to find fulfillment, both as an individual and as a member of a family and society;
- The witness that the Church seeks to give in collaborating in the search for a solution to the problems of the poor is a sign of the presence of the kingdom of salvation and liberation;
- The mission of the Church also consists in helping to make society more human.
In this sense, the act of providing housing for a person who has none is a concrete expression, not of simple social assistance, but of the evangelical message and of the works of mercy in that they are also works of Christian faith.