by Monte Mace
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Charles Carney looks at the homeless, unwashed or mentally ill, he sees the crucified Christ.
And he tries to help them, sometimes inviting them into his home.
He and his wife Donna founded St. Lawrence Catholic Worker House at 309 N. 15th St. in Kansas City, Kansas, in 2005. Ever since, they’ve housed one to three homeless people in their home — the Catholic Worker House — until their guests could get on their own two feet.
In 2010, Charles went a step further and founded Companion Ministries. It helps people get housing, obtain Social Security disability or medical insurance and provides job coaching and counseling. All at no charge.
Even though government or private organizations offer services to the poor and homeless, Carney said the help isn’t enough.
He said lots of organizations provide meals and piecemeal help. But few can do what Companion Ministries does, which is to rescue those who don’t qualify or can’t help themselves. Carney offers what he called a “Plan of Hope.”
The need was dramatized to Carney in 2010 after the state of Kansas declined federal funding under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and then cut funding for social services and mental health treatment. Carney said that action hamstrung government programs as well as Medicaid, and stymied the work of nonprofit organizations.
“Those who fall between the cracks, we take on,” he said. “We help them apply for Medicaid or Social Security. The ‘Big Three’ are income, homelessness and health care. If there are mental or developmental problems, I help hook them up with organizations that can help.”
In 2013, Companion Ministries helped a record 31 people with similar stories escape homelessness.
Carney has a knack for networking and partnering with organizations that have common goals — often crossing religious lines. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Christ the King Church in Kansas City, Kansas, Rainbow Mennonite Church, First Central Church of the Brethren and the federal senior employment retraining program all participate with the organization in one form or another.
In fact, the selfless mission of the organization impressed actress Susan Sarandon so much that she has donated money twice after receiving Carney’s mailings.
Brian (not his real name) is an example of the success Carney has had helping people. Brian is 31 and has a learning disability. He was referred to Carney by Catholic Worker House of Kansas City, Missouri. He was living in an abandoned house with a few other men. He was impressionable and easily misled by others. Brian wasn’t an addict but had a felony record.
Nevertheless, Companion Ministries was able to help Brian win a Social Security disability claim in just five months so that he now receives $733-per-month income. Brian tried to find housing, but 45 landlords turned him down. Carney approached a landlord friend in Kansas City, Kansas, and landed Brian a one-bedroom apartment for $325-a-month rent.
Ann Suellentrop, of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, is a Companion Ministries board member and a registered nurse. She houses formerly homeless men in a rental property and has seen Carney’s work up close.
“He has a heart of gold and will go to the nth degree to be of assistance to the poor,” she said. “Charles really knows how to cut through red tape and get people into housing or meet their other needs quickly. The person that most stands out is a woman over 90 years old who was thrown out of her apartment in the winter. Charles got her into a very nice assisted living place very quickly.”
Another person who has seen Carney work near miracles is Debra Sapp-Yarwood. She’s joining the board of Companion Ministries and is studying to become a hospital chaplain at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee. One of the congregants at her church, Rainbow Mennonite Church in Rosedale, was rescued by Companion Ministries after a landlord abandoned a midtown property — leaving all residents with no utilities and overflowing plumbing.
“We discovered the rules in Kansas and Missouri are completely different and completely bamboozling,” she said. “Ultimately, Charles got our congregant on the waiting list for subsidized housing in Wyandotte County and, from there, he got a placement. Without Charles, we might have given up on him.”
Companion Ministries is headquartered for free at the First Central Church of the Brethren, located at 103 N. 13th St. in Kansas City, Kansas. Sonja Griffith is pastor of First Central. She said Carney helps a variety of people who don’t always know where to turn or how to navigate the complex social services structure.
“I have seen Charles get people housing, food stamps, medical care, legal help and even furnaces and Social Security payments,” she said. “He helped a young man who does not have a father who will pay any attention to him. He got this young man to be a part of the community college and got money for coursework. He is currently working with one of our people to get dentures for her. We could use two or three or four Companion Ministries!”
Carney ignores the occasional infestation, body odor or erratic behavior found among the folks he serves.
“Every person should be treated with dignity,” Carney said. “It might be Jesus at your door. We are called to minister to the most downtrodden. Donna and I have no children. This is our calling.”