‘Homeless Jesus’ helps hundreds find shelter

Father Gary Padgett sat next to a sculpture of the “Homeless Jesus” at St. James Church, 1826 Edenside Ave. (Record File Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Along busy Bardstown Road in the Highlands, a bronze park bench cradles a statue of Jesus Christ — lying down and huddled under a blanket. 

You can’t sit on it very comfortably and you certainly can’t lie down. But the statue is helping hundreds of homeless individuals find shelter.

“Many are out on the streets and desperate to get off the streets,” said Joe Best, a social services coordinator at the Cathedral of the Assumption.

Best helps hundreds of homeless individuals obtain identification documents, which they need to secure housing.

Money donated to the “Homeless Jesus” statue supports that effort. A lockbox standing next to the statue bears the words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you did for one of the least of my people, you did for me,” and lets passers-by know the money donated will aid homeless individuals.

The donations go to Catholic Charities of Louisville and are funneled to the ID effort at the Cathedral, Best said in a recent interview

The statue, anonymously commissioned by a parishioner of St. James Church, was installed on the front lawn of the Highlands parish in 2018. Since then, people have dropped $20,000 into the lockbox. 

The Cathedral has received all the funds, according to Father John Schwartzlose, who serves as director of mission at Catholic Charities.  

Homeless individuals waited outside the Sandefur Dining Hall located behind the Cathedral of the Assumption in late October. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Each day in the Cathedral’s Sandefur Dining Hall, hungry men and women stand in line waiting for a sit-down meal. That’s where Best and others who minister with him, like volunteer Peggy McCarty, learn about their plight. 

A third of those who come for lunch are homeless, said Best. 

“Many are struggling to get off the street or into programs and that’s when the identification (card)” becomes important, he said. Many have had their belongings stolen; others have lost their belongings while incarcerated.

The ID program provides vouchers that help pay for replacement documents, including $15 identification cards; homeless identification cards for $5; driver’s licenses for $21.50; and Kentucky birth certificates at $10, said Best.

“This is a critical piece of the whole process to say, ‘This is who I am’ ” when homeless individuals try to apply for government benefits or housing, Best said. “Without that piece, everything crumbles.”  

Best said the funds from the statue are critical because the need is on the rise. The program has been around for 20 years, he noted. Before the pandemic, the program was funded by a grant from the city, and before that, the money came from parishioner donations.

Just this fall, the program has assisted 167 individuals. Between July 2022 and January 2023, the program assisted 400, he said.

“Imagine your wallet is gone and all your information is gone,” said Best. “It amazes me how they cope, but they need some actual tools, and that’s what we’re here for.”

The anonymous parishioner of St. James who commissioned the statue believes the people who walk by that statue and drop money into the lockbox are giving from the heart.

The Homeless Jesus statue is seen on St. James Church’s front lawn. Next to the sculpture is a lockbox and a plaque with an inscription from Matthew 25:40. The box contains a slot where passers-by can leave donations for Catholic Charities of Louisville. The funds have been helping homeless individuals obtain identification documents. (Record File Photo by Ruby Thomas)

He’s responsible for retrieving the funds, he noted during a phone interview. People have left pennies, nickels, dimes, 20-dollar bills, gold pieces and even a collectible Pete Rose baseball card, he said.

Seeing the nickels and pennies reminds him of the story in the Gospel of Luke “about the widow who gave her last penny, not from her excess, but from what she had,” he said. “I’ve come to appreciate the pennies as much as the 20-dollar bills.”

Having been in business for years, he said he tends to think in terms of investments and “return on money.” 

“If you simply give people money for food, we’re not helping them solve their problem,” he said.

When thinking of a way to make a difference in the lives of homeless individuals, he thought the statue would be the way. He saw a similar statue while traveling and “knew instantly what I had to do. I knew it had to be at St. James,” he said.

He believes the Holy Spirit inspired him to commission the statue from Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz.

Ruby Thomas
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Ruby Thomas
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