St. Louise House offers stability for homeless women
By Enedelia J. Obregón
Ten years ago, Veronica Lockett was trying to lift herself and her baby out of homelessness and poverty by getting an education. With the help of St. Louise House, Lockett earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work at Texas State University and now is enrolled at the University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law.
“St. Louise House created the opportunity for me to have the stability that has allowed me to be where I am today,” Lockett said. “That’s made me a better parent, a better sister and helped everything fall into place. It just took someone to take a chance on me.”
St. Louise House was founded in 2000 as VinCare services by a group of parishioners from St. Austin Parish led by Daughters of Charity Sister Sharon Groetsch. They saw the need for transitional housing for homeless women and their children while active in the parish Outreach to Street Youth program. Sharon Bieser was founding executive director.
VinCare was inspired by the Vincentian model of service to the poor. St. Vincent de Paul was a 17th Century French priest who with St. Louise de Marillac, co-founded the Daughters of Charity.
St. Louise House began its service in 2001 with five families in an apartment complex from which they rented space. Later that year, they bought the apartment complex with financial help from the Daughters of Charity and partnerships with the City of Austin. They now own three apartment complexes.
Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy was in his last year of office as bishop of the Diocese of Austin. He jokes that due to his great wisdom and understanding of economics, he initially told the founders who approached him with the idea that “it’s impossible and you’ve no idea of the difficulties.”
Bishop McCarthy said that he quickly learned the error of his thinking and got behind the project.
“I see my job as cheerleader, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity or St. Vincent de Paul,” said McCarthy, who will be 88 in June. “The idea of the church as a social ministry is important. Jesus eased the pain and suffering of the poor and the church has that as part of its ministry.”
For his support, St. Louise presented Bishop McCarthy with its Sister Sharon Groetsch “See the Need” Vincent Spirit Award during its recent 15th anniversary celebration.
Lockett, now 35, said the stability of not having to worry where she and her baby would sleep each night made the impossible possible for her. Statistically, the odds were stacked against her. Lockett grew up in foster care and group homes, including the Settlement Home in Austin. Her mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has been in prison for most of Lockett’s life.
Under the foster care system, children “age out” at 18 and they celebrate their birthday by becoming fully independent with no safety net. So Lockett was in survival mode from day to day. Long-term planning was not on her radar.
After high school, she moved in with a boyfriend, who was abusive. She carries that reminder of that abuse: a missing tooth and scars from cigarette burns. Lockett ended up in prison for three years for stabbing him in self-defense. At the time, there was no domestic violence court. She is still paying him restitution for his pain and suffering.
For months during her prison stay at Gatesville, she petitioned for a transfer to the same prison unit as her mother, who was serving a 30-year sentence. She was denied and became so despondent that she tried to hang herself.
“I saw no reason to go on,” she said.
Six months left in Lockett’s incarceration, her mother was transferred to her unit and they became cellmates.
“I finally got to ask her all the things I wanted to know and tell her things I had wanted to tell her,” Lockett said. In the closeness of a prison cell, they talked about her mother’s drug and alcohol addiction, the parade of men in her life she chose over her children and the chaos of constantly being in court and being separated from her siblings in different foster homes.
“I was able to tell her I was angry about having to go to school and spend holidays without my siblings,” Lockett said. “I told her I didn’t want her telling me that if I’d been a better child things would’ve been different. I told her, ‘When you committed to having me, you committed to being a parent, but you failed me.’”
Lockett then had an epiphany and realized, “If I don’t get out of this place and do something with myself we could both be in prison reminiscing about the past.”
After being paroled, she lived with her sister in Lubbock, where she got pregnant with Raney, now 11. She moved to Austin, ending up homeless before finding St. Louise House. Because of her criminal record, no one would rent to her.
It was also at St. Louise House where she got the idea of becoming a social worker when her case manager suggested it. Because of her perspective, she was not initially receptive to the idea.
“I thought, ‘why would I want to do that? They take away people’s children,’” Lockett said.
When St. Louise House took a chance on her, she decided her experience with social workers would allow her to help others. St. Louise House paid for child care while she attended college. They provided bus passes so she could travel to and from Texas State University, where she didn’t have to pay tuition since she was a foster child. St. Louise also provided furniture, utensils and all she needed to set up a home after she moved into public housing.
After getting a master’s degree in social work, she and Raney moved to Houston, where she worked in public housing as a case manager. She married and had Ryan, now 5. She has since divorced. The children’s fathers are in contact with their children.
For many years, she had thought about law school so she could work and focus on homelessness and women. Most importantly, she saw the law as a way to change the system. She saved all the money she could, living frugally in order to make her dream come true.
However, the law schools to which she applied rejected her because of her prison record. All it took was for one to say “yes.” She interviewed for admission at UNT-D law school with Royal Furgeson Jr., the law school dean who retired in 2013 as a federal judge in the Northern District of Texas.
Lockett still lives frugally, paying her rent a month or two in advance so she doesn’t end up homeless should a financial emergency arise. Her apartment has no living room furniture and no TV. The borrowed dining room table and chairs are where the children do their homework under her watchful eye after a healthy after-school snack. She brags about her daughter taking pre-AP classes in sixth grade.
Lockett acknowledges that God has placed many people in her life who have helped her in her struggles. They include Bieser, who is godmother to her children and whom they call “grandma.” There’s Carolyn Robeson, who took Lockett on college visits, and Marcy Greer, who introduced her to Judge Furgeson and paid for Lockett to live in a hotel for three weeks while she took the week-long fundamentals course that determined whether she could continue in law school. This also gave her time to find a place to live and bring her children from Houston.
Most importantly, St. Louise House and the people she met since have helped establish the necessary stability for her children to do well in school and for her to be a constant in their lives. She prays that even if she doesn’t get her law license because of her prison record, the knowledge she acquires can aid her in helping homeless mothers and their children.
“I’m leaving it in God’s hands,” Lockett said. “It might be hard. But he’s never let me down.”
For more information about or to volunteer at St. Louise House, go to www.saintlouisehouse.org.