An archdiocesan outreach for men experiencing homelessness has received a generous donation from someone who herself had once been without a home.
On March 4, staff and residents of St. John’s Hospice (SJH) in Philadelphia welcomed Nikki Johnson-Huston, named Ms. Pennsylvania 2020 by the United States of America Pageants.
As part of her title, Johnson-Huston received $1,250 to benefit her charity of choice, SJH’s Good Shepherd Program.
Operated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services and a beneficiary of the Catholic Charities Appeal, St. John’s Hospice offers residential services for more than 250 men transitioning from homelessness to independent living.
It also provides case management, on-site nursing, daily showers and a mailroom for more than 1,300 men while serving some 300 hot meals each weekday.
The Good Shepherd Program supports medically fragile men at SJH.
As she presented the check in her tiara and sash, Johnson-Huston — a tax attorney and member of Holy Cross Parish in Philadelphia — said she felt she was among friends.
“This is my fourth time here,” said Johnson-Huston, a California native. “I’ve seen their journeys, sharing that they’ve gotten jobs and apartments, and I tell them, ‘There’s no difference between me and you. I’m just a little bit further in that journey.’”
That’s because Johnson-Huston’s path to her present career included three episodes of homelessness during her childhood and teens, due to her mother’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Her brother died as a result of substance abuse.
She eventually went to live with her grandmother, whose deep Catholic faith she embraced. Through “God’s help, a lot of hard work and people being incredibly generous with their time,” Johnson-Huston won a scholarship for her undergraduate studies at St. Joseph’s University. Afterward, she completed her J.D., M.B.A. and LL.M. degrees simultaneously at Temple University.
But she never forgot her grandmother’s definition of true achievement.
“She took me to church all the time, and really instilled in me that even though we didn’t have a lot of resources, we were incredibly blessed people,” said Johnson-Huston. “And she always encouraged me to succeed, but to judge that by how I helped people, not how much money I made.”
For that reason, Johnson-Huston has become an advocate for ending homelessness and fostering addiction recovery. She developed Donafy, a smart phone app that allows users to locate and donate to more than 100 local nonprofits that provide housing, food, mental health and other social services.
The “wraparound services” available through SJH and its Good Shepherd Program address the root causes of poverty and homelessness in an individual’s life, said Johnson-Huston.
“They’re not just providing a place to stay; they’re also allowing them to get medical treatment and to find jobs,” she said. “These are tangible things that allow people to become independent and to be empowered, and not have to depend on the kindness of strangers.”
Good Shepherd Program supervisor Barry Martin agreed, adding that the genuine compassion shown by staff and by Johnson-Huston has profoundly impacted SJH residents.
“It’s a love of these people and a connection with her because of her own experience,” he said. “The whole house has benefited from her presence.”
Hospice volunteer Amber Williams said she appreciated Johnson-Huston “just for being herself.”
Williams keeps a picture of Johnson-Huston above her mirror for inspiration in reaching her own goals.
“I’m volunteering now, and after that, I want to try to give a couple thousand,” said Williams. “You have to start there first. God gives to us, and I’m trying to give back.”
The giving goes both ways, said Johnson-Huston.
“I need them as much as they need me,” she said. “This is a community that brings something to my life unlike anything else: a shared experience.”
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