Once homeless himself, shelter director helping others turn lives around

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Carl Zawatski, director at St. Francis Shelter in Tucson, Ariz., talks with Sister Jerry Brady, a Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth, March 10, 2020. CNS photo/Michael Brown, Catholic Outlook

TUCSON, Ariz. (CNS) — Looking back, Carl Zawatski acknowledges, he has not lived the life of a saint.

Although he had earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management and worked in high-end resorts around the country, he ended up homeless at one point in his life and abused alcohol.

But he turned his life around and now as executive director of St. Francis Shelter in Tucson, which offers respite for homeless men, he is helping others try to do the same.

Zawatski arrived in Tucson in 2009. He met Franciscan Brother David Buer, who had started Poverello House a year earlier. It was Brother David’s work that inspired him and led him to open the St. Francis Shelter, which is on the grounds of Sacred Heart Parish.

He recalled how Brother David seemed to be a one-man show at Poverello. The Franciscan would watch over the men during the night, usher them out in the morning and then clean the facility. He would hustle down to be with his community at San Xavier Mission to offer morning prayer before starting a full day of ministry.

“Just watching him, you can’t help but be inspired by him,” Zawatski said in a recent interview.

Zawatski wanted to join the Franciscans but learned that he was too old — he was 52 at the time and the cutoff was 45. Brother David suggested he live his life according to a Franciscan lifestyle. That’s what gave rise to the whole idea for St. Francis Shelter.

There have been many other supporters — financially and spiritually — over the years. Before they sold their Tucson monastery in 2017, the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration were ardent prayer partners, Zawatski said. He still is in occasional contact with some of the sisters since they returned to the community’s motherhouse in Clyde, Missouri.

“Those prayers got me through some pretty lonely nights,” he said. “I appreciated those prayers.”

Another friend is Redemptorist Father Tom Picton, his spiritual adviser, who until recently led the Desert House of Prayer retreat house.

Other friends are Tom Litwicki, executive director of Old Pueblo Community Services, and Sue Allen, who works on the finances. Zawatski chuckled as he talked about the differences between Allen’s disciplined approach and his forward-looking-anything-is-possible point of view.

“We complement each other,” he said. “Actually, we have learned to bridge each other’s personalities.”

Zawatski was told he needed to convince Sacred Heart’s parish council and the neighborhood association that opening a men’s shelter on the parish’s sprawling grounds was a good idea.

The pastor believed that if Zawatski could convince those groups to sign off on the plan, it was meant to be. Zawatski admitted, “We weren’t taking in the sweetest people in the world.”

With scant financial backing and a staff that still need to be assembled, Zawatski asked for the briefest of commitments: 30 days. He made a promise that he would keep the facility secure for that long, and if he did not keep his promises, then at the end of 30 days, he would close the facility.

“It was the only reason they would allow me to do it,” he recalled.

At the end of 30 days, he had not broken a single promise, and St. Francis Shelter’s lease was renewed.

After cleaning up the neighborhood park next to the parish and making good on their security promises, the shelter won over other skeptics, including the Amphi Neighborhood Association. “They have become our biggest advocate,” he said.

In November 2017, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He started treatments the following February. By September 2018, he was cancer free.

Zawatski called it a “miracle” that came after he started chemotherapy and received a blessing from Tucson Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger. “I don’t know what worked more, the chemo or the blessing.”

One of his most memorable moments came during a surprise award ceremony in February 2018: He was given the title of Third Order Franciscan, or lay Franciscan, because of his work with the homeless.

At 63, he said running St. Francis Shelter, especially as a cancer survivor, can be a challenge. However, echoing the words he once heard from a priest he highly respected, Zawatski said he was committed to spending the rest of his life at the shelter. “I am going out with my boots on.”

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