Living life authentically at Hope Street

Authored by Ray Nothstine

An eternal perspective brings peace and joy. That’s what Ashley Thomas believes, but she didn’t always have a feeling of peace in her life. Her family experienced financial hardships, eviction, and even homelessness when she was younger. Doubt and uncertainty crept in—understandable, given her experience—and a feeling of needing to be perfect was a weight she carried. She even felt that pressure as a collegiate basketball player at the University of Wisconsin. “For so much of my life I focused on needing to be an achiever to be loved,” says Thomas.

Those feelings evaporated when she entered Hope Street in Milwaukee for the first time in 2012. “I felt like my faith settled into my heart versus just in my head,” she adds. “I experienced this feeling that I’m already loved.”

A few years later Thomas became the organization’s director and is continually expanding a ministry for those who need a place to live and thrive. She says her own difficult experiences cultivated a deep empathy and compassion for others.

“Hope Street became an opportunity to embrace what had happened to me growing up,” says Thomas. I was able to figure out how to move forward and know again that God didn’t waste any of that experience.”

Homes at Hope Street includes 24 apartment-style units, a workout center, and shared common spaces. Shechem at Hope Street, a community center, offers more activity areas and a vibrant gathering space and gymnasium that brings people together. The mission of Hope Street is to provide housing and community for men, women, and children coming out of different areas of brokenness.

“Our heartbeat is to meet people where they’re at and walk with them and help them establish a relationship with Jesus, themselves, and others so that everybody can work toward an opportunity to flourish,” says Thomas.

She talks about memebers and their recovery from addiction. Others need to just work toward employment, learn to make a budget, or discover a healthy community for the first time.

“We don’t give anybody dignity here, we restore dignity, and remind people of that gift that comes from God,” says Thomas. “When we welcome people into our community, it’s that foundational thing, that first thing we share is that you are the beloved, period.”

Thomas stresses that she has learned a lot from both the thankfulness and generosity of the members because they exude those virtues in giving and receiving simple blessings many take for granted. The ministry thrives in part because of the environment’s authenticity. The leadership is authentic, but so are the members.

“You can’t fake it here,” says Thomas. She says members often ask new staff how they feel broken or need help, too. She notes that a staff member who is coming in to “fix” people is likely going to be frustrated at Hope Street. Thomas adds that there are significant and challenging conversations taking place across the table. Nobody is immune to their own brokenness and need for growth.

Anybody who deals with people on a day-to-day basis knows that it can be a grind. The work is hard. Many disappointments accompany the success stories.

The zip code where Hope Street resides highlights some of the built-in difficulties. Thomas tells me that this area of Milwaukee has one of the highest incarceration rates for black men in the country. “That statistic alone disrupts a lot of things that we’re trying to reestablish in the sense of having a dad or a man in a household,” says Thomas.

Milwaukee is very segregated, and employment is always difficult to manage for people who come through Hope Street, whether it is because of addictions, a criminal history, or just a need for more job skills.

Thomas says Milwaukee has a very big-city-small-town vibe, which can be beneficial for rubbing shoulders with people who know how to help the ministry at Hope Street accomplish its mission.

Families stay at homes for about 18 months, on average, and single adults for about 10 to 12 months.

“The hardest parts are when somebody has made a poor decision or a choice and they must move out,” declares Thomas. She says there have been unexpected deaths because with some addicts, while they succeeded in becoming sober, their bodies are still catching up from all the lifestyle choices they’ve made. “I would say sudden death—sometimes from people who are young—continues to be the hardest part of the work.”  

Thomas says one of her favorite verses from Scripture is 2 Corinthians 4:16–18. It’s evident throughout our conversation that there is an eternal perspective to the work being done at Hope Street. It’s a reminder too that they are building a community and meeting immediate and long-term needs in ways that government services and spending can’t replicate.

“That is the foundation we’re going to build upon because if you can trust and know that you are His beloved, then nothing else that gets said to you or done to you along the way can knock you off your square because it doesn’t knock you off His.”

“There’s nothing you could do to be more loved by God,” says Thomas.

Ray Nothstine is the Future of Freedom Fellow at the State Policy Network and a senior editor and writer. He manages American Habits.

Authored by:Ray Nothstine


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