Room In The Inn is a winter shelter program for the homeless in Nashville, created by Father Charlie Strobel.
Each evening between November 1st and March 31st area churches collect about a dozen homeless people each, from the Room In The Inn campus, and take them to their places of worship. There, volunteers from the churches provide the homeless with a meal, a place to sleep, and transportation back to the Room In The Inn campus in the morning. During all of this, the volunteers have an opportunity to provide hospitality and community to the homeless people in their care.
Though not quite perfect, this seems the best possible way of sheltering homeless people. It is the most favorite among the homeless.
- It removes homeless people from the homeless environment. If just for the evening, the break from the stress of street life gives homeless people the opportunity to decompress, relax somewhat, and perhaps even recuperate a little from what ails them.
- It gives homeless people an opportunity to connect with others outside of the homeless environment. Homeless people often feel alone and isolated from the rest of society. This may lead them to believe that they are unwelcome within the rest of society. Socializing with non-homeless people helps the homeless develop feelings of acceptance and belonging.
These benefits, not available in other homeless shelter systems, do the most to move homeless people forward in their attempts to leave homelessness.
For those churches participating in Room In The Inn, I offer this unsolicited advice. These are my ideas only, and should be considered as recommendations. Only you can determine what is best for you and your church and your homeless guests.
First of all, I would like to say on behalf of all homeless people “thank you” for the work you do in making Room In The Inn the successful program that it is. What you do here impacts the entire homeless population. I remember how things were before the advent of Room In The Inn. The streets were a more hostile and miserable place to be back then. You should know that your positive influence on the homeless in your care disperses out to the rest of the homeless population.
- When the homeless arrive at your church, they are tired.
It may seem that being homeless means being without things to do, and without anything taxing ones well being. Nothing could be further from the truth. While on the street, there is no place for a homeless person to get real rest. Being constantly in the public sphere prevents homeless people from achieving the kind of rest that only comes with privacy. When you are in your own place, you can let down your guard, and you don’t have to entertain anyone or anything. In your own place you don’t have to worry about what you look like, what other people are thinking of you, or if the police or other “concerned citizens” will find fault with you and decide to investigate your actions. The other 30 to 50% of the homeless population will have spent the day working, mostly in labor intensive jobs.
Nearly all homeless people suffer from sleep deprivation. Everyone knows how getting to sleep in a new place and unfamiliar place can be difficult. Just imagine being in a different place every single night. And none of the places you find to sleep are comfortable, or anything near conducive towards real sleep and rest. when I slept outside I constantly worried about being attacked, so I awoke at every seemingly threatening sound.
After a day of street life, the homeless still have to go through the Room In The Inn processing, so to be assigned to the waiting churches. That means a lot of standing and waiting, and waiting in a long and slow moving line, and being crammed into a small room with hundreds of other homeless people who are also tired.
Then there is the trip out to the church. There are many different forms of transportation employed to get the homeless out to the different churches, but the most common means is by church van. These vans are not designed to carry as many people as are usually loaded into them for Room In The Inn, especially when you add all of the backpacks and other items the homeless keep with them. Just as the homeless don’t want to be “warehoused” in a shelter, they don’t enjoy being crammed into a van, especially with other homeless people, most of whom are strangers, or worse, that they may have animosity towards.
As you can imagine, any person, homeless or not, would become irritable when so tired and having to go through so much just for a place to sleep. Because of all this, please be mindful that some of the homeless people coming to your church will only want to get to sleep, and for the most part to be left alone.
A note about the van ride to and from your church: The driver of the van may think he/she is doing the homeless a favor by running the heater. The thing is, these homeless people piled into the van, shoulder to shoulder, are naturally generating their own body heat, which in a van filled with 12 to 15 people can warm up the van all on their. Also consider that these homeless people are also wearing many layers of clothing, plus sweaters, jackets and coats. Throughout the winter, the homeless are dressed to keep themselves warm while outside. So in your church van there is little need for auxiliary heat. In many cases it may even be necessary to crack a window a couple inches to aleviate over heating the van, and the stuffiness that may develop. Besides, some of your guests might not have showered in a while, and the other homeless would appreciate some fresh air during the ride.
There is certainly a trade off to consider. Although it is a good thing to try and take in as many homeless people as possible, the more people you take in, the less care you can provide to each of them.
- Homeless people want to have as much space as you can afford to give them.
Being around homeless people all day, everyday, is not always fun. For the many problems they are dealing with, homeless people are not always the easiest people to be around. Still, the rescue mission, the homeless are herded from one activity to the next. At the mission, there is one waiting room, one dining room, and two main sleeping dorms with about 150 beds in each. Living at the rescue mission feels much like being warehoused. It is certainly much better with Room In The Inn to only have 11 other homeless people to contend with each night. But many of the churches doing Room In The Inn will insist on having their dozen homeless guests occupy a very small space, sometimes with sleeping mats placed only inches apart from each other. If a church has facilities available they should allow the homeless to spread out some. This gives the homeless people some dignity of their own space. This would also alleviate concerns about hygiene, as well as the potential spread of colds and the flu among the homeless. Colds and the flu spreads quickly within the homeless population, in much the same manner as they spread in a day care. But with limited resources, homeless people have a much more difficult time overcoming these things once infected.
The Catholic church, St Ignatius, is a relatively small church, but what they do is allow the homeless to occupy their Sunday School rooms, two or three per room. For this, St Ignatius is one of the favorite destinations among Room In The Inn guests.
- Most homeless people would rather you not preach to them.
Some people assume that if taking one aspirin is good for you, then taking 20 must be great. Well, I wouldn’t recommend it. Some people view Jesus the same way. I wouldn’t recommend that either.
Proselytizing is very very common on the street, and is considered to be a irritating necessity to be tolerated in exchange for the care they need to survive. It is a welcome break to not be forced to attend church, or to participate in a bible study. You may think that what the homeless people need most is a relationship with Jesus. Trust me, they get plenty of Jesus and the Bible as it is. Just how many times a day would you willingly tolerate people challenging your beliefs and relationship with God, especially when you are already secure in your faith, and especially when others of the same faith constantly assume that because you are homeless that somehow your relationship with God is less correct than theirs?
Some of the homeless people coming to your church may initiate a conversation about God. That is good thing, and an opportunity to witness. But know that many homeless people have learned that doing so is like currency that will afford them some residual benefit. They know that developing a relationship with a Christian who is desirous of sharing the Word will often result in receiving cash, food and other material things. So, they may talk the talk, though with ulterior motives.
- Homeless people have standards.
Every Church offers something different in their Room In The Inn programs, and sometimes the difference is rather stark. Although people are always being turned away from Room In The Inn, many of the homeless try to get in, only for the chance of getting out to a good church. And though it may be wrong of me to say so, the truth of the matter is some church programs are so pathetic as to be despised by the homeless. The homeless would much rather stay at the rescue mission, or stay on the streets for the night, than go out to these churches. Only because they fear being banned from the Room In The Inn program altogether do they submit themselves to a night at these undesirable places. Of the 150+ churches in the Room In The Inn program there are perhaps a dozen of these churches. The overall objection the homeless have of these churches has to do with a feeling that these churches are not treating the homeless with any kind of real respect.
- Engage homeless people when appropriate.
Although Room In The Inn volunteers should be sensitive to those homeless who want to be left alone, they should also be aware of those homeless who want someone to talk to. There are some churches that have a good number of volunteers showing up to do the work of the church, but they keep a considerable distance from the homeless. During the meal, while the homeless ate, they would all huddle in the kitchen and talk and laugh amongst themselves. This only adds to the feeling of being ostracized. I highly recommend that church volunteers join the homeless for dinner. Sharing a meal together can be a great ice breaker and a very memorable experience. And is the easiest way to engage the homeless. That is, as long is the meal is a casual affair. On the other side of this are the churches that make too big a deal of the entire event. One church in particular has every minute of the entire stay with them formally orchestrated, including a required full hour of proselytizing. This allows for absolutely no time for the homeless person to relax and have a moment to himself. I understand some believe that all of this will somehow benefit the homeless person. But really, sometimes doing nothing at all the best thing possible.
- What you have the homeless sleep on makes a difference.
Many churches start their Room In The Inn programs using Army cots for the homeless to sleep on. In an emergency, and for short time use, Army cots are convenient. But they are uncomfortable, and difficult to sleep on. Especially in the winter, and in church facilities where heating is not often utilized, and given the one thin blanket provided, it is hard to maintain one’s body temperature at a level comfortable enough to promote quality sleep. Churches that continue with the Room In The Inn program often upgrade to sleeping mats or mattresses, after a year or two, but not all do. But mats on the floor have problems too. Some mats use offer little protection or support from the hard floor. And being on the floor keeps people in cold building drafts, making them more susceptible to catching colds.
And a note about catching colds: It is true that a low temperature does not directly cause colds, because colds come from viruses. But it is also true that cold air does weaken a persons immune system, making it harder for them to fight off viruses. So keeping a place warm, where people are spending the night, does promote good health.
(this is all I have at the moment. I’ll try to write more later)