Building Community with Homeless in El Salvador

Maryknoll lay missioner’s Catholic Worker house
helps Salvadoran homeless put lives back together

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[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds[/googlefont]

As María, Óscar Ulysses and Tim Ross make their rounds with a thermos of coffee, dozens of egg sandwiches and small pouches of cold drinking water, they are warmly greeted by the homeless people of downtown San Salvador, capital of El Salvador.

Many of the area’s homeless men, women and families sleep directly on the sidewalk pavement or on cardboard, getting drenched during the rainy season and breathing in the exhaust fumes from the relentless San Salvador car and truck traffic.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Tim Ross has led this bread-and-coffee route on Friday and Saturday mornings. In the summer of 2018, he teamed up with Erica Olson, a former Maryknoll lay missioner who now works for Habitat for Humanity in San Salvador, and Nelly Ramirez to start a Catholic Worker hospitality house in San Miguelito, one of the city’s neighborhoods.

Tim Ross, right, talks with Louis, who is homeless in El Salvador, as the Maryknoll lay missioner completes a bread-and-coffee route near the general hospital in San Salvador. (Meinrad Scherer-Emunds/El Salvador)

Tim Ross, right, talks with Louis, who is homeless in El Salvador, as the Maryknoll lay missioner completes a bread-and-coffee route near the general hospital in San Salvador. (Meinrad Scherer-Emunds/El Salvador)

They explain—in a newsletter—that they named the house La Carpa (The Tent) “as a reminder of our impermanence on Earth, our longing for an eternal dwelling place … [and] the lifestyle of those we are trying to reach: always wandering, hungry, looking for food and a safe place to sleep.”

María, who didn’t want her last name used, and Ulysses are two of four formerly homeless residents who have been part of La Carpa community for more than a year. They have accompanied Ross to encounter homeless people to give them not only a much needed meal, but more importantly a ministry of presence and friendship.

“Tim is an angel. Tim has given us friendship… and we love him,” says Louis, a homeless man, in fluent and almost accent-free English.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Tim Ross (left) shares a moment with homeless men outside the La Carpa Catholic Worker hospitality house in San Salvador. (Erica Olson/El Salvador)

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Tim Ross (left) shares a moment with homeless men outside the La Carpa Catholic Worker hospitality house in San Salvador. (Erica Olson/El Salvador)

Many of the homeless people in San Salvador struggle with addiction issues, Ross says. Louis recently got clean for a few months and sold sweetbread on buses, but now he’s back on the street.

“There is a lot of drug use, and even though many of the people on our route express a desire to change their lives, they don’t see an easy way out,” Ross says. “They’re very used to nobody caring about what happens to them.”

Like a surprising number of other homeless people in San Salvador, Louis has picked up his flawless English from spending many years working in the United States. Like many others, he was deported and is having trouble reintegrating and finding work in El Salvador.

“Many have more of a cultural connection to the United States than to El Salvador,” Ross explains. “Once back in El Salvador, they often have no support network. It’s very difficult for them to succeed here.”

Tim Ross serves coffee to homeless men outside the La Carpa Catholic Worker hospitality house in San Salvador’s Barrio San Miguelito. (Erica Olson/El Salvador)

Tim Ross serves coffee to homeless men outside the La Carpa Catholic Worker hospitality house in San Salvador’s Barrio San Miguelito. (Erica Olson/El Salvador)

Being an outsider is very dangerous, particularly in areas controlled by gangs, which is a big problem in El Salvador, he says.

Two of the La Carpa residents also lived in the United States for decades. Christian Rivas lived and worked in Virginia, where he raised two daughters—now 21 and 16—from whom he became separated when he was arrested for driving with a suspended license.

After eight months in an ICE detention center, he was deported to El Salvador. Since his return, he has been working hard—first in construction and now at a call center—but he ended up living on the streets and in homeless shelters until finding his way to La Carpa in November 2018.

Fileno Antonio Atola spent some 25 years in the United States, working in many different places and in jobs ranging from dishwasher and day laborer to salmon cannery worker in Alaska. He struggled with alcoholism, but has been sober now for many years. He has been back in El Salvador since 1996.

“I don’t have much family here,” Atola says, “a daughter, a granddaughter and a cousin. But I don’t want to bother them.” Together with Ross and other residents of La Carpa, he volunteers at a nearby soup kitchen, the Comedor Mamá Margarita of the Catholic María Auxiliadora parish as well as another local church. “God put Tim in my path,”

Recently La Carpa switched its outreach from the bread-and-coffee route to providing meals at the house. The community now serves breakfast six days a week to some 30 people outside its doors on Pasaje 2 in Barrio San Miguelito.

The bread-and-coffee route succeeded in fulfilling its original intention, says Ross. “People got to know us … and many folks now come to our place for the breakfast.”

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Tim Ross helps prepare food at La Carpa (The Tent) hospitality house for the homeless in El Salvador. (Erica Olson/El Salvador)

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Tim Ross helps prepare food at La Carpa (The Tent) hospitality house for the homeless in El Salvador. (Erica Olson/El Salvador)

However, serving dozens of people at La Carpa has created some challenges. “There is some bad blood between different groups of homeless people in San Salvador, and we’ve had to break up several fights out on our sidewalk,” says Ross. As a result, they have had complaints from neighbors about “ruining the neighborhood.”

Ross, Olson and Ramirez have set up their hospitality house as a place where they could invite people to stay and live as permanent residents—and to build a community together.

“Our hopes for this house,” says Ross, “are to have a tight-knit Christian community, where people who traditionally have been discarded by society can find a place where they are important, valued and welcomed, where they can contribute. What really affects them deeply is when they realize we are here as their friends. We are here as family.”

Some residents struggled with that. “They were accustomed to living very independently,” Ross says, adding that it is “very touching and gratifying to watch the transition” when people served realize they are wanted as part of La Carpa family.

Tim Ross (left) and Mr. Lopez, a homeless man, chat during a delivery of bread and coffee to homeless in El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador. (Meinrad Scherer-Emunds/ El Salvador)

Tim Ross (left) and Mr. Lopez, a homeless man, chat during a delivery of bread and coffee to homeless in El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador. (Meinrad Scherer-Emunds/ El Salvador)

In addition to helping to serve the homeless community, the seven residents at La Carpa also get together every Saturday for reflections, prayer and Bible study as well as conversations, games and other community-building activities.

“Probably some of the most important work that I do is just sitting and listening to people’s stories,” Ross says.

“Everybody here has gone through traumatic experiences, whether it’s having lost their home or having lost their family, being the victim of injustice in this society or of injustice in the United States,” he adds. “Once people shift out of survival mode, a transition takes place. They start processing the experiences that they’ve been through, and that is a painful process, but it’s also healing.”

La Carpa’s residents come from different Christian traditions. However, Ross says, “We’re all very conscious of the call to serve our neighbors, and we very much emphasize a spirituality of recognizing Christ in everybody.”

Featured Image: Tim Ross (left) chats with a homeless man called Mr. Lopez during a delivery of bread and coffee in El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador. (Meinrad Scherer-Emunds/ El Salvador)

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Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds is director of communications for the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.