To “harbor the harborless” is one way to refer to the merciful work of sheltering the homeless.
It is fitting, then, that a city in eastern Canada — where ocean vistas are visible on many streets — would be where the House of Hope came into existence. The house’s founder, Father Rob Elford, describes how it has provided safe harbor and been a sure anchor for the harborless and those previously adrift with addiction.
“This is not simply about getting a roof over someone’s head, as important as that is,” Father Elford said. “This is about cultivating a community of men that cares for one another.”
The pastor at Stella Maris parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, recounts how he founded the House of Hope at his previous parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, when he was a transitional deacon.
“It’s an intentional covenanting community for men who have been sober for a minimum of a year and are trying to work out their sobriety as members of, not only a covenanting house, but of a parish,” Father Elford told Our Sunday Visitor in a phone interview.
“The House of Hope is a place where we can work on their core identity as beloved children of God,” he explained.
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Father Elford, who was an ordained Anglican priest before converting to Catholicism, noted that “implicit in the language of ‘covenant’ is relationship,” such that “I am yours and you are mine.” This differs substantially from a contract.
“A contract basically says, ‘this is yours and this is mine,'” Father Elford said. “Through the language of covenant, there’s the intimacy of relationship that’s not simply about sharing things but about sharing oneself.” Accordingly, the House of Hope is a “covenanting community” because it is “a community that comes together through an intentional process of committing to one another.”
Finding a home
Cole Dreger was the first resident of the House of Hope. The 36-year-old met Father Elford through a common acquaintance.
“I just invested a bit of time in Cole because he was a friend of a friend,” Father Elford said. “I really enjoyed meeting with him.”
“From there, the most beautiful relationship began,” agreed Dreger in a phone interview. “We started going on walks together.”
Father Rob has a calmness and a wisdom to him that just comforts me, Dreger added. “Some people just give up. But [Father] Rob never gave up on me. He always was there. If I needed him, he’d help me.”
Father Elford was indeed there when Dreger needed him most.
The founder of the House of Hope recalled how “during this phase of Cole’s life, he would have been one of the undocumented homeless” in the city. “He had nowhere to stay, because he was kicked out of the apartment that he was staying in.”
“He was in a bad way, basically couch-surfing,” Father Elford said.
Around this same time, Father Elford, then a transitional deacon, was transferred to a new parish that had two empty rectories. He sought and received approval to use one of these homes to begin the covenant community. It opened its doors to Dreger in January 2020.
“I saw what the Holy Spirit was doing in his life,” Father Elford said of Dreger. “I saw a beauty, I saw a freedom in Cole that was trying to explode and break open. And so I just tried to find him some space where I could just watch that happen.”
“It was the first thing that I ever felt was mine,” Dreger said of the House of Hope. “I shared it with God, and it was amazing.”
Formerly “a champion motorcycle supercross racer” who had been at the top of his welding class, Dreger said he had it instilled in him as a young adult not to trust anyone.
“But when God entered my life, he gave me a sense of trust,” Dreger said. “He gave me [Father] Rob. He gave me the Church. He gave me AA. He gave me my friends. He gave me the House of Hope — and that I trust.”
“I never had hope before,” said Dreger. “I needed something to happen in my life to change me. And the only way I could find that something was to believe in something bigger than me.”
After living in the House of Hope, Dreger and another resident were confirmed in the Catholic Church on Easter 2021. In fact, Dreger has enjoyed such a success story that in April 2021, after living in the covenant community for a year and celebrating three years of sobriety, he moved out and got his own apartment.
“He moved out because it supported him in getting back on his feet,” Father Elford said of Dreger’s time at the House of Hope.
“It gave me that sense of belonging that I never had,” said Dreger. “It was the greatest gift I could have ever gotten.”
Continuing the gift
Father Elford has learned a lot — not all of it easy — through his experience establishing the House of Hope.
Even so, he hopes there are more initiatives like it.
“I believe with all of my heart that God is calling the Church to respond to people like Cole in ways that speak to the care of the whole person,” said Father Elford.
“This is what Jesus calls us to do,” he said. “Jesus did it when he walked on the earth and he calls his Body of Christ now — and all people who are disciples of him — to come alongside people like Cole and to restore their true identity.”
That’s the starting point for being human, continues Father Elford. “My humanity is caught up in the humanity of others, people like Cole.”
While he recognizes that providing shelter is a vital part of ministering to others, Father Elford was adamant that “it needs to be part of a comprehensive approach.” Shelter without healthy relationships is more likely to enable the very illness you’re trying to heal, he said.
“As a deacon in the Church, and as someone who has worked in the prison system for five years,” Father Elford has witnessed the “barriers that are in place for men who have either been in prison or men who have addictions in their background.”
This fueled a desire to do something.
“I have been trying to secure a residence for prisoner reintegration for several years,” said Father Elford. “It never seemed to work out.”
Father Elford noted that “through prison chaplaincy,” people in jail come to see that “God is actually real,” and so is mercy. They think, “maybe it is possible to make a new start and maybe I still have some inherent dignity.” However, “they come back into the world and that is not their experience of parish life.”
They experience parish life as unwelcoming, uncaring and quite indifferent, said Father Elford. “And so, we want to change that.”
Founding the House of Hope has been a vital step in the direction of such change.
Through his relationship with Father Elford, Dreger perceives this.
“I knew this was [Father] Rob’s dream,” he said. “He’s always wanted to help people [with] addictions and people that deserve a second chance. That’s what [Father] Rob is all about.”
As a result, Dreger said he “felt obligated to make it work.” He asserts that this was “not on [Father] Rob’s behalf” but because he “was given a second chance.”
After some reflection Dreger corrects himself. “It’s not about getting a second chance,” he said. “It’s just about getting a chance.”
Nicole Snook writes from Canada.