Tough Love With A Vengeance

Cynthia didn't know it, but she had just confronted the woman the news media had nicknamed "the nun from hell." "Do you want to take me on? Come on, I'm ready," invited Sister Connie, a tough 61-year-old with a black patch over one eye. But Cynthia, a prostitute and drug addict, took a second look at her steely faced opponent and realized she had met her match. She reluctantly agreed to obey the strict rules of the homeless shelter Sister Connie runs. Today Cynthia works as a restaurant cook, rents her own apartment, and supports her own children. She's made it, and her success at turning her life around is a shining example of why private charity works where government handouts fail. Sister Connie opened St. Martin dePorres House of Hope for Women 12 years ago in the heart of Chicago's south side. Her nearest neighbors are gang members and drug dealers. It's a tough neighborhood. But Sister Connie, who has dodged bullets and taken knife wounds in the course of her work, is even tougher. And her shelter is, as the nun bluntly puts it, not a place where homeless women are coddled. The residents must accept a strict regimen that includes rising at 6:30 A.M. Mothers must clean both their children and their rooms before breakfast. Classes in parenting and life skills are mandatory. So are daily 12-step programs for substance abusers. Women who don't have a high school diploma must work toward one. And if Sister Connie suspects residents are hiding drugs, she's not above calling in a SWAT team to bust her own shelter. It's tough love with a vengeance—and it works. Only 4 percent of the women who pass through Sister Connie's boot camp ever end up back in the shelter system. By comparison, nearly 40 percent of those who pass through Chicago's shelter system as a whole return seeking help. That's help they wouldn't need if other shelters caught on to Sister Connie's secret: attaching moral demands to the assistance they give. The most common cause of homelessness, Sister Connie believes, is a lack of personal responsibility. Thanks to public assistance, her clients almost always receive enough money to pay their rent, but they don't pay it. Instead, according to Sister Connie, that money often disappears up in smoke in the form of crack cocaine. By contrast, Sister Connie's approach meets the biblical definition of compassion: to suffer along with the homeless. It means getting personally involved with people who truly need help. That's something no government check can do. But if assistance is to make a long-term difference, it has to come with moral strings attached. It involves making people learn how to behave responsibly. That's what Sister Connie demands of everyone who walks through her door. We aren't all as tough as the so-called "nun from hell," who chews up drug addicts for lunch and spits them out with job skills and dignity. But you and I ought to reach out with the love of Christ and get personally involved in tough-love programs in our own neighborhoods. Programs that offer real solutions to poverty. Programs with moral strings attached.  


Chuck Colson



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