by Carolyn Arnold
There’s no shame in not succeeding, just in not trying.” That idea has inspired Deacon Michael Oles ’64 throughout his life. It also led him to forming Off The Streets, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless people transition from living in shelters and on the streets to affordable housing.
Even before the nonprofit, which he formed in 2009, Oles has led a life of taking chances on new and sometimes challenging endeavors, both professionally and personally. Oles described himself as an introvert as an undergrad. “I met my wife at a Fairfield mixer because someone dared me to ask her to dance.” Now, he’s way too talkative, according to his wife Kathleen. The happy couple have now been married for 47 years and have four children and nine surviving grandchildren.
When he graduated from Fairfield in 1964, the draft for the Vietnam War was in effect, and Oles decided to try to become an officer in the Air Force. That proved to be a big challenge for him. “I was the clumsiest guy that you ever saw,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Despite his best efforts, Oles knew he was on his way to being booted out of Officer Training School. “The night before I went for my final review, I prayed to God asking, ‘Why did you send me here to fail?,’ because there was no question that I was failing. But I said, ‘whatever happens, Thy will be done.’”
As it turned out, he was kept in the Force because of his educational background in physics and reassigned to research and development projects, which began his career in the aerospace industry. During this time, he worked at NASA on the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Mission. In 1984, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and worked in the aerospace industry for 15 years as a program manager. Then, he taught high school physics for three years.
Later, he followed a long-standing calling to the Church and was ordained as a deacon in 2002.
For more than 25 years — throughout his time in the aerospace industry, as a teacher, and when he was ordained a deacon, he had been volunteering at a homeless shelter in Danbury, Conn. While his intention to help was good, he admitted to being fearful as well as having the wrong perspective on it. “I was doing this for my salvation and saw them as having made mistakes in their lives that led to their homelessness,” he admitted.
It wasn’t until he met Michael Kusen, one of the homeless people who frequented the shelter, that he saw things differently. During a cold winter, there were only a certain amount of beds available and Oles witnessed Kusen give up his bed to a homeless woman. “The only possession he had was a bed, and he gave it away. That was a total eye-opener for me,” Oles said.
Later, Oles and Al, another homeless man, went to a school to talk to students about homelessness. The students were inspired to take action and raised money to help Al get off the streets. Oles was struck by their generosity and energy, which eventually pushed him to action. “Students have great idealism, and often as adults we lose that. They pushed me to do more,” he explained.
Soon after, Oles formally founded Off the Streets in Danbury, Conn., as a nonprofit 501(c)(3). All donations are used for security deposits for homeless individuals who can afford a monthly rent. All furniture and other living items to help with a new start are donated. To date, Off The Streets has assisted more than 400 homeless people settle into housing — 80 percent of whom retain their housing. Two other chapters have opened, one in Lancaster, Penn., where Oles and his wife now live, and another in Bridgeport, Conn. A fourth chapter in Huntington Beach, Calif., is close to being launched. Oles has written a book, Help The Homeless – OFF THE STREETS – One Person at a Time, which is intended to inspire others to begin Off The Streets chapters in their own communities.
Oles noted that, while there were several years of “flailing around” trying to decide how best to serve the homeless, he and those who work with the program are fired up. “It’s my whole life, besides my family and my church, he said. “This is where the Holy Spirit has inspired — has actually put a thorn — in me.”