Jonathan Sweet knows that Jesus loves him. But until he met Michelle McHugh, he wasn’t sure anyone else did.
“I had almost given up on humanity,” says Sweet, 52, a single, childless Havertown native who was homeless for seven years until a chance meeting with McHugh changed his fortunes. “Not every homeless person is a criminal or an addict. But people treat you like you’re a second-class citizen. It gets you down.”
In Sweet’s case, a severe accident put him out of work and then out of his home. He has been alone for a long time, he says, and fights depression.
Last December, he and McHugh were chatting at the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby. McHugh, who lives in Havertown, was waiting for a train to Philly, where she works as associate director of Drexel University’s television management program.
Sweet was a distinctive presence among the homeless folks who seek shelter at the station, and not just because he sports a forehead tattoo of a crucifix (to honor the Lord). McHugh had seen him there for years, noticing that he never asked for food or money. He just liked good conversation and was pleasant and kind to those he met.
Christmas was approaching. McHugh asked Sweet where he’d spend the day.
“Over there,” he answered, pointing to a forested area within walking distance of the neighborhood where McHugh lives with her husband, Jim, and their preschool son, Nolan.
“I was shocked,” says McHugh, 43. “While my family was warm inside a nice house, Jon was living in the woods behind us. It was heart-wrenching.”
She and her husband booked Sweet into Upper Darby’s Summit Inn Motel for the week between Christmas and New Year's. She then posted a Facebook request for holiday donations for him.
Offers of food and clothing poured in. Someone suggested McHugh create a GoFundMe campaign to further assist Sweet.
McHugh hesitated. She’s a busy working mom, not a social worker. She didn’t know the first thing about transitioning a homeless person off the streets.
Her head said that this should be a one-time deal, not a long-term project.
“But my heart was telling me take it a step at a time,” she says.
The GoFundMe site she established on Christmas Eve – “Helping Havertown’s Homeless” – exploded as word of McHugh’s mission spread through the community. More than 120 people donated $6,770, allowing Sweet to remain at the motel through winter, with cash left over.
But what then?
On Sweet's behalf, McHugh contacted Community Action of Delaware County, an agency that assists with housing, and a caseworker was assigned to Sweet. McHugh then helped Sweet renew his photo ID, without which he couldn't obtain things like food stamps. She posted frequent updates on Facebook and GoFundMe, which led to a Good Samaritan couple – Morgan Coacher and Chris Baer – offering Sweet their cozy Upper Darby rental house at a deep discount.
“That was key, because no landlord would rent to Jon – he has no credit and no job,” says McHugh.
On Holy Thursday, Sweet moved into his new home, which is fully furnished thanks to donations and the enthusiastic services of Havertown interior designer Liz MacDonald (who even managed to find a sofa in purple, Jon’s favorite color).
Community Action will pay his rent for a year, but he must actively seek employment. They'll closely monitor his actions and help him address practical issues, like paying bills regularly, so his situation remains stable. His new Havertown friends plan to stay in close touch as he adjusts.
“I’m still in shock,” says Sweet, who wants to pay forward Havertown's kindness to him. “My faith in people is renewed.”
The community’s faith in itself has been renewed, too, says Jill Wineberg of Havertown. McHugh’s mission has created connections among neighbors who’d never known one another.
“Helping Michelle help Jon brought us together,” she says.
McHugh can’t help noting that Sweet’s journey out of the woods began during the Christmas season of birth and ended during Eastertide – the season of rebirth.
“Getting to know Jon at Christmas and seeing how people have reached out to him since then has been very, very moving to me," she says emotionally. “And now it's Easter, and it feels like Jon’s come back to life.”