Meeting People Where they Live: The Home Visit and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Written by Sunnie Lain, Coordinator of Vincentian Support Services
From the Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: “From the Society’s beginning, the central and most basic activity of Conferences has been the visitation of the needy in their homes. This is the clearest symbol of our Vincentian charism, which dictates the highest respect for the dignity of the poor. It symbolizes our Vincentian commitment to reach out to the needy, rather than require them to report to an outside service site. In the home, needy persons feel most free to confide their stories of struggle. In that family setting, Vincentians are asked to listen, offer humble advice, and render assistance.” Rule: Part I, Articles 1,2 and 1.7 – 1.12; Part III, Section 8
The painting above is of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. When he was a 20-year old college student at the Sorbonne in Paris, he was challenged to put his faith to work. He met with Sr. Rosalie Rendu, a local Daughter of Charity whose ministry was serving the poorest residents of the Mouffetard District. She taught Frederic and the other early Vincentians, all of whom were young students, that in order to offer the most practical and loving service to the poor, they must go to them and meet with them in their homes. There were many reasons for this.
First, Vincentians seek to “see the face of Christ” in those we serve. We actively seek out opportunities to spend time with the people we serve and to develop relationships with them. The time we spend with our neighbors in need is not transactional; rather, it is relational. We strive not only to bring material assistance but hope to those we serve.
Second, we are best able to assess the needs of the people we serve in their home environment. Many times we receive a call for utility or rental assistance, but when we visit the neighbor in their home, we see that they also need furniture or appliances, a need that was never mentioned via phone. As Bl. Frederic Ozanam said, “The knowledge of social wellbeing and reform is to be learned not from books nor from the public platform, but by climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him…”
Third, it is much more comfortable and less embarrassing for our neighbors to have someone come to their home as a visitor than to have to report to another site. So many people in poverty have to accommodate multiple “helping agencies” schedules—we seek to come when it is convenient for them, because, as St. Vincent de Paul said, as Vincentians, “the poor are our masters”. Maintaining the dignity of the people we serve is critical.
As Saint Vincent de Paul moves toward more a more systemic change-oriented approach to moving our neighbors out of poverty and toward self-sufficiency, the Home Visit will become even more important. Studies have shown that no significant change in a person’s life is likely to occur without a significant relationship with a supportive mentor or friend. Vincentians are moving forward toward this model of help, but with the Home Visit at its core, this has really always been part of the Vincentian way of helping those in need. Sr. Rosalie Rendu herself was quoted as saying, “The money or assistance in-kind that we give to those who are poor will not last long. We must aspire to a more complete and longer lasting benefit: study their abilities…and help them get work to help them out of their difficulties.” Working together with our neighbors in need, we seek to not just enable people to maintain themselves in poverty, but to break free of it.