ROME – Standing in front of Rome’s famed Trevi fountain after arriving in the city late the night before, Kate Henke’s eyes welled with tears as she contemplated what she’s been through and the steps she’s taken that have led her from sleeping on the streets of Denver to walking those of the Eternal City.
At 25, Henke has been through more than most – the divorce of her parents, chronic depression, the struggle of living with a family member suffering from mental illness, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, recovery and motherhood.
Speaking to Crux a few days after arriving in Rome for her March 3-8 pilgrimage, sponsored and paid for by Denver Homeless Ministries, Henke said she was overcome with both excitement and gratitude.
After the first full day of touring and walking around, their group stopped like most visitors to throw a coin into the Trevi fountain.
It was at that moment, staring at the chiseled stone and taking in the beauty of the image in front of her that “my eyes just started to well up” as she thanked trip organizer and chaperone Tanya Cangelosi for the opportunity to come on the trip, which she described as “life-changing” and something that gave her “a brighter outlook” on her life and her future, as well as that of her daughter, Anastasia.
Denver Homeless Ministries (DHM), is an organization committed to providing awareness of homeless persons in the Denver community and providing opportunities to serve them as both equals and friends.
Six years ago, after having a dream about it, Cangelosi decided to offer an annual Rome pilgrimage as a way to inspire homeless youth to change their lives and not to allow themselves to be controlled by their circumstances.
In an interview with Crux, Cangelosi, who is Catholic, said she chose Katie this year because Katie had been put in her mind.
“I never just choose someone,” she said, “but the Lord randomly puts the person in my path, if I get a ‘gut level’ feeling, I ask…it may not be the person I choose or want to go but I KNOW it’s the one (God) picks.”
That gut-level feeling came when she walked into the Purple Door Coffee shop – which offers jobs to homeless people to help them get on their feet – and saw Katie working there.
“When I saw her, I knew,” Cangelosi said, explaining that from there, everything else fell into place.
In her interview with Crux, Henke said her family has a history of mental illness, and she began to experience chronic depression at age seven – an experience that led to a contentious relationship between her and her mother which eventually prompted her to leave home and live on the streets.
“I couldn’t stand it there anymore,” she said, explaining that she left home at 15. Her father had been homeless at the time, and with no other family to live with, she started hanging out with other homeless youth in downtown Denver.
“I felt more at home sleeping on the concrete sidewalks with these people than I did at my own house. They fed me and they helped protect and everything,” Henke said.
Soon she started drinking and within a year she had become an alcoholic. While she was able to kick the drinking after realizing she was an addict, she had started using methamphetamines, “and that screwed up my life pretty bad.”
“I was doing stupid stuff, I was stealing stuff for my drugs. I was just not a good person,” she said, and swore she would never start using again, “no matter what…I don’t ever want to, you know?”
After struggling with depression and using drugs until she was 18, Henke said the breaking point that finally prompted her to get clean was in 2012 when she found our she was pregnant with her daughter.
“Nothing in my life was ever the same thing again,” she said, explaining that while she still experiences depression, “it’s easier to get through the days knowing my little girl depends on me.”
“Before I had my daughter, when my bouts of depression would go on, I would literally just stay in my camp for days on end, not eating, just not taking care of myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom unless I absolutely had to, because I didn’t want to move…It almost hurt to be out in public when I was down that low.”
Henke said she hasn’t experienced a day like that since her daughter was born in January 2013.
Going back, Henke said she wants to put her “heel to the pavement” in looking for a job with more availability, since her previous job at the coffee house was only two days a week.
She said another dream of hers is to save up money so that one day she can come back to Rome with her mother, who has never really traveled.
“She would love it so much out here…the churches are so beautiful, and just the sights in the city. The food is amazing,” Henke said, adding that highlights of the trip for her have been her first moment at the Trevi fountain, a daytrip to Assisi, seeing the famous “bone church” run by Capuchin friars and which contains chapels decorated with the bones of deceased friars, and meeting Pope Francis during his March 6 general audience.
“It was just so surreal, getting to do something that you never thought you’d get to do in your lifetime is just shocking at first,” she said, speaking of meeting the pope. “It was amazing to get to hold his hand in mine even for a moment. It was definitely an honor.”
In her comments to Crux, Cangelosi said her main reason for taking homeless to Rome is because “I want to show the homeless that they don’t have to stay where they’re at.”
Cangelosi, who has long been known as a friend of the homeless in Denver and who has launched several initiatives to get them jobs and opportunities beyond the street-scene, said her faith is one of the reasons she has continued to do the work, including the annual pilgrimage.
“Why else would I do this? It’s really hard. The process of working up to it is hard,” she said, though she recounted each of the five people she’s taken have taken major steps toward changing their lives.
The pilgrimage initiative, which will end after this year following Cangelosi’s recent move to Missouri, is “nothing I’ve done,” she said, saying that in her view, the idea came from God.
“I wouldn’t have thought of this,” she said, explaining that while the Rome pilgrimage will cease for the moment, DHM will continue their outreach to Denver’s homeless community.