Inspired by Vincentian Mission, New Dax Program Aims to House Homeless Students

June 8, 2021

As a Vincentian university, St. John’s strives “to provide an excellent education for all people, especially those lacking economic, physical, or social advantages.”

With this in mind, the University recently announced the establishment of Depaul USA’s Dax Program at St. John’s, a bold initiative that provides low-cost housing for some of the most vulnerable students—those experiencing housing insecurity.

“We are thrilled that the Dax Program is now available to St. John’s students,” said Kathryn T. Hutchinson, Ph.D., Vice President for the Division of Student Affairs. “This significantly augments the resources available to students and is a wonderful complement to the emergency aid program that has been in place on campus for years.”

In a recent survey of more than 1,100 St. John’s students, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 26 percent of respondents experienced housing insecurity in the previous year, and 11 percent experienced homelessness during the same period.

“We were aware that there was a population of students at St. John’s that were housing insecure or homeless. and we decided we wanted to help that population,” explained Charles W. Levesque, President and Executive Director, Depaul USA, the organization behind the Dax Program. “The goal of the program is to stabilize the students by providing them with housing. We know if they graduate, they can be connected to the world of work, and they are unlikely to experience another economically driven episode of homelessness.”

The Dax Program at St. John’s was first announced by Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M. ’70C, Executive Vice President for Mission, during the 2019 State of the University Address. “As a Catholic and Vincentian university, we are obligated and remain committed to finding new and innovative ways to ensure that all of our students succeed,” he said. “We know that when the basic needs of our students are met, they have a greater likelihood of achieving academic success.”

Named after Dax, a town in France near where St. Vincent De Paul was born and educated, the program is already in place at DePaul University, in Chicago, IL. The Dax Program in Philadelphia, PA, serves students of various colleges and universities in that area.

St. John’s Dax Program will provide up to 10 students with short- or long-term housing at one of two fully-furnished “Dax Houses” near the Queens, NY, campus. The program also provides students with food stipends, textbook assistance, educational reimbursement, and counseling referrals.

The houses are owned by the University and will be rented to Depaul USA, which is a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, and a separate entity from DePaul University. The Dax Program receives all of its funding from individuals and foundations.

“Students in the program must work a set number of hours each week and pay rent of $100–$150 per month,” explained Mr. Levesque. “We want them to have the resources to pay, while encouraging the kind of thinking that connects them to work. Fortunately, we have relationships with allies who help us find jobs for students while they are in the Dax Program.”

Students can apply directly to the Dax Program, and members of the University community can refer students to New York Dax Program’s Coordinator, Jo Padgett Herz ’20C, ’21G, a former Ozanam Scholar at St. John’s.

“We also work with Residence Life, who identifies at-risk students we might be able to help,” Mx. Padgett Herz explained.

“We’ve found that any place where students have a relationship of trust, they will come forward. Even if a student isn’t a good fit for the program, we make sure that they have someplace else to go. A crisis is a crisis—and we’re going to help them.”

Housing is offered to students year-round and continues for three months after graduation. This “grace period” gives the recent graduates time to secure permanent jobs and find stable housing. In the event that a graduate hasn’t found a place to live, Dax will continue to work with them until they do.

According to Lucy Pesce, Executive Director for Mission and the Vincentian Institute for Social Action, the Dax Program dovetails perfectly into St. John’s Vincentian mission. “St. Vincent de Paul inspires us to help those most in need,” she explained. “By providing the most basic human needs to students who might not otherwise have a safe and stable place to call home, the University is answering the age-old Vincentian question of ‘What must be done?’”

Since the program began at DePaul University in 2015, 93 percent of Dax students have either remained in college or graduated. Among the graduates is Sharon, who expressed her gratitude to the program.

“Thank you for believing in me and giving me a chance,” she said. “You are changing lives through love and faith in us, and I am forever grateful that I was one of the lucky ones to be touched and changed by the Dax Program. The Dax family will always be my favorite miracle story.”