In June 2015, Michelle had an accident at work that sent her life spiraling into an unknown abyss of paperwork, pain and poverty. Within months she was homeless, living out of her truck and fearing for her future. The last place she ever thought she would be, turned out to be the last place she had to go - Catholic Charities.
A nurse for 32 years, Michelle's accident left her with career-ending injuries to her back and neck. Without an income, her landlord evicted her. In order to receive financial assistance, she had to be without work for six months. It was a dark time.
"I was depressed. I was at the point of not getting up because I felt like I had nobody and nothing to help me. Every place I went told me, 'You can find a job.' But, I was injured to the point where I couldn't work anymore," she said.
After talking to several agencies in downtown Buffalo, she went to 525 Washington St., Central Intake for Catholic Charities.
"I was at the end of my rope," she said. "Holly was the lady that was seeing me. I told her, 'I'm done, I'm tired, I'm broken. Tonight is the night I'll give up.' She talked to me and told me, 'Don't give up.' She said, 'I'm going to help you because I believe you. I believe that you've just fallen on hard times.'"
Holly Edwards, a social worker, met with Michelle, listened to her story, then did a needs assessment to determine what it would take to get her back on her feet. Edwards found Michelle a place to stay that was clean and safe for a single woman. Michelle settled in with food vouchers and personal care items.
"Anyone can fall on hard times. I never thought in my life that I would be homeless. So, it gave me another outlook on homeless people and veterans that don't have anything," Michelle said, looking back at that dark time.
People like her are common sights at 525 Washington, where people in need can simply walk through the front door and ask for help. There, social workers will take care of the basic hierarchy of needs - food, clothing and shelter.
"Those are the needs we meet for a lot of our clients walking in," Edwards said. "There's pretty much no need we can't fulfill here. We've done absolutely everything they can imagine. If there is something we can't fulfill, we have made referrals. We will refer people to other agencies. We will write a letter and advocate on their behalf or call the agency and link them properly, so we know they're going to a nice warm transfer of services."
Once a client comes in the doors, a social worker will do an assessment to understand the situation. He or she will try to find income or benefits for the client, such as SNAP and Emergency Temporary Assistance. The social worker will also look at expenses to help make a budget. They mostly look at immediate needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, but have also referred people to job readiness programs and, in some cases, given gas money and bus tokens to help people get to their appointments.
Assessments last under 30 minutes. During that time, a plan is designed to get the client back on his or her feet.
"Most clients come to us - lost their job, something traumatic happened - immediately they come here and need a quick fix," Edwards explained.
Eviction is a common concern. Catholic Charities has several grants that help with housing. Assessment will determine if the client is eligible for one of the Rapid Rehousing programs.
Central Intake deals with Emergency Services, so the relationship Edwards sees with a client is short term. "Most people would come in, the session would last 30 minutes, and then we won't hear from them for a while, until there is another crisis," she said.
If the client has a chronic issue, the assessment might include a referral to an internal program, such as substance abuse or workforce programs. Counseling offices might have a six-month relationship.
"If clients come in, and we're helping them with their food, their shelter, their clothing, obviously, that's very traumatic for them. They don't have the basic needs everybody has, so my office is full of tears and Kleenex, but we're able to refer them to Msgr. Carr (Institute) or one of our satellite offices to give them some support in the future," Edwards explained. "Our services are pretty much a Band-Aid. We're able to give them their immediate need. We'll give them their food. We'll give them their clothing. OK, be on your merry way, but how do we prevent this from happening in the future? That's where the counseling comes in. Just a little support system to keep them above flow."
Michelle, now happy in her apartment and receiving Disability Benefits, has gone back to Catholic Charities to thank everyone who helped her, especially Edwards, who never stopped her support.
"She was very kindhearted and very understanding, and she had a heart. She hugged me and told me she would make sure I made it, and I did," Michelle said.
With her own needs taken care of, Michelle pays it forward, buying food for homeless veterans and taking them shopping once a month. She wants to be there for others, as people were there for her.