Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 2, Page 3
Winter 1993
Thomas Hunsdorfer; Helping Boston's Homeless

     It's a fairly common occurrence in any large city today: Many
residents sidestepping the homeless on streets. But, there are individuals
who don't look away, and one of them is Thomas Hunsdorfer, Delaware '71,
     Hunsdorfer has been confronting homelessness through his work at
Boston's largest, daytime homeless shelter, St. Francis House, for more
than six years.
     Currently, he is director of personnel and administration for the
shelter, which, with an annual budget of $2 million, employs more than 50
paid workers and 350 volunteers.
     Housed in a 10-story building near Boston's former red-light district,
St. Francis House offers the homeless-or guests, as they are called by the
staff-an array of services, including medical and psychiatric care, meals,
clothing and showers. Most of the shelter's guests are men.
     About 100 beds accommodate overnight visitors, but the shelter is
principally dedicated to daytime services, Hunsdorfer says.
     The shelter supplies clothes to nearly 1,000 people each month. Once a
week, by appointment, guests line up to obtain "new" boots, coats, pants or
other necessary items, all of which have been donated.
     St. Francis House tries to be holistic in its approach to the
homeless, Hunsdorfer says. By having a nurse near the sleeping area at
night and physicians available during the day, as well as lawyers on
request, the shelter covers basic health and security issues for its
guests. A post office box also is at their disposal.
     Hunsdorfer says the shelter also sponsors employment seminars and
pastoral programs, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and one-on-one literacy
meetings, in a comprehensive attempt to meet the needs of the homeless.
     And those needs are often complex, Hunsdorfer says. Approximately
one-half of the shelter's guests have a mental illness; some are
HIV-positive or have AIDS; many suffer from deterioration of their toes
because of constant exposure to the elements. Most shelter residents own
only a few tattered clothes when they arrive and have no chance to bathe
regularly other than at shelters, Hunsdorfer says.
     And, then, there is the psychological impact of homelessness. "Many of
the homeless have zero self-esteem," Hunsdorfer says. "They think, 'I must
be a bad person and I deserve to live this kind of life.'"
     For such reasons, he concludes, many of the guests do not take
advantage of employment opportunities or attend the shelter's employment
seminars. So, while many of Boston's homeless have day jobs, the majority
of guests at St. Francis House are unemployed.
     Hunsdorfer, who holds a bachelor's degree in English and a master's
degree in business administration from Delaware, works with his colleagues
to encourage the shelter's guests. They make coffee and muffins available
near the classroom and employment meeting areas. At the end of literacy
classes, an informal graduation ceremony is held. The goal, Hunsdorfer
says, is to ensure that guests will experience what he calls "the real
Cheers of Boston"-a shelter where everybody knows their name.
     St. Francis House administrators also attempt to lessen the self-doubt
of the homeless through art, he says. With an easel, paper and brush, some
of the shelter's guests have painted pictures of their lives and
dreams-some turning out to be quite evocative. In recent years, the shelter
has produced a calendar of guests' artwork, with selected entries earning a
cash bonus for their artists, he says. There also has been an exhibit of
homeless persons' art at City Hall.
     But, while he speaks of the St. Francis House's holistic approach as
the only satisfactory method of caring for the homeless, Hunsdorfer, 42, is
nonetheless realistic about life in the "shelter system." He knows the
physical comfort that the guests share in the shelter-along with the
emotional warmth some feel-is surrendered with their daily return to the
     In a 1989 column that appeared in The Boston Globe, Hunsdorfer
summarized his work with the homeless:
     "A shelter such as St. Francis is just one small point of light in the
Boston homelessness picture, and yet I have lost count of the number of our
guests who have died since we opened 4-1/2 years ago. The funeral masses
and searches for next of kin begin to run together.
     "The level of alienation and hurt, the physical, emotional and
spiritual devastation, is extraordinary for the homeless. Each day they
feel marginal, ashamed, worthless and, in their darkest moments, like
     Hunsdorfer says international events and his parents greatly affected
his career choice. His mother served in the American Field Service for 20
years, and Hunsdorfer says his family often hosted guests from around the
world. Her work opened his eyes to the world about him and made him aware
of human suffering, he says.
     As an undergraduate at the University, Hunsdorfer says he was consumed
by thoughts of Vietnam. He participated in "at least one major protest per
month" and served as a hall director in the Harrington residence hall
complex. After becoming an English major "by default" because he enjoyed
writing, he wrote theatre and book reviews for The Review, the student
     Hunsdorfer also met his wife, Sally, at Delaware, while she was
serving as the area coordinator for the Russell Residence Hall Complex.
     Toward the end of his University years, he says he petitioned the
military for conscientious objector status and never was called to serve.
Instead, he spent several years at odd jobs, working as a bartender,
parking lot attendant and construction worker before becoming a buyer for a
Wisconsin firm.
     "By 24 or 25, I realized where I wanted to be, so I went to graduate
school," he says. The not-for-profit sector was where Hunsdorfer was
headed, but he felt he needed a business degree to properly manage any
organization he might join.
     As a graduate student, he became involved with Bread for the World, a
church group that lobbied to end global hunger. He served a summer
internship as a lobbyist for the hungry in Washington, D.C.
     After finishing the University's two-year master's program, he says he
"single-handedly brought down the curve on starting salaries" for new MBA
recipients by taking a $10,000-per-year job with the Delmarva Ecumenical
Agency of Wilmington. From there, his career in the not-for-profit sector
was set.
     Before joining the staff of the St. Francis House, Hunsdorfer went on
church and relief study group missions to Nicaragua and India. The
experiences were eye-opening, but Hunsdorfer says he came to realize that
"homelessness here in America is as real as global hunger."
     St. Francis House, he says, started in the late 1970s as a bread line
and was later expanded to include sandwiches and soup. By the early 1980s,
the ranks of the homeless were swelling and a shelter was born.
     Over the years, an increase in the number of drug-addicted, homeless
people has been just one of the changes Hunsdorfer has seen. Many shelters
are now forced to search visitors. And, while St. Francis has its own
security force, a metal detector may soon be installed, Hunsdorfer says.
Other changes have been more positive.
     Under an innovative new program, interested guests can now receive a
St. Francis House photo identification card. "When we started the program,
we thought, 'Oh, boy, is this turning into a bureaucracy or what?'" he
     Though the shelter does not verify the information supplied by guests
for their wallet-size cards, Hunsdorfer says, bank and police officers and
landlords have all begun to accept them as sufficient proof of individuals'
     And there's a side benefit of incalculable value, Hunsdorfer notes.
"Having an identity card gives people a sense of being somebody." He says
the lack of a driver's license, credit cards and other staples of most
citizens' wallets "goes to the heart of being homeless."
     "We characterize them by what they are not," he explains. "They are
homeless. They do not have keys to lock things up that belong to them.
Their very identity is in question because of these cards they lack."
     Other positive changes are still on the horizon for Hunsdorfer and the
shelter: The shelter's directors hope to construct a series of apartments
on one of the building's unused floors. With a common area, the floor will
be divided into private rooms, each with its own entrance, he says. Guests
will be able to stay 12 to 24 months.
     Although the future of the project depends upon a federal grant,
Hunsdorfer says he remains hopeful for the future of his shelter's guests.
     "A lot of people are finally letting go of blame and are taking a more
realistic look at the homeless," he says.
                                   -Stephen Steenkamer, Delaware '92