Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Room In The Inn; Shelter For Homeless People - Part 2

Part 1 can be found at Room In The Inn; Shelter For Homeless People

Room In The Inn
is a winter shelter program for homeless people that was started by Father Charles (Charlie) Strobel, in Nashville Tennessee. His model for sheltering homeless people has since been adopted in the following cities:

Calgary, Canada; Charlotte, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Clarksville, TN; Ft. Worth, TX; Hyannis Point, MA; Jackson, TN; Lexington, KY; Long Island, NY; Murfreesboro, TN

The premise is simple. Churches, Synagogues, and other non-profit organizations have facilities that are often under utilized, at least at certain times during the week. And these same organizations hold as part of their core values and beliefs the idea of providing for the less fortunate. Well, Room In The Inn is a program which helps these organizations exercise these values and beliefs, while making good use of their facilities. On any given night during the coldest months of the year, there will be a dozen or so churches, and other organizations, hosting about a dozen homeless people each, within their facilities. There are over 150 churches in the Nashville area within this program. Most of them participate in the program once a week.

Last year, from November 1st until March 31st, Room In The Inn in Nashville provided:

  • 139,031 hours of service
  • 1,286 individual guests a place for the night
  • 29,149 beds
  • 88,029 meals

From this bit of information we can gather some interesting statistics. On average, homeless guests participated in Room In The Inn program only 23 nights during the 5 month period of its operation, (total number of beds divided by number of individual guests). This could be due to several factors.

Because so many homeless people want to participate in Room In The Inn, there is not enough room for all of them. Every night about a dozen or more people are turned away.

Also, the average homeless experience lasts only 3 to 4 months. Though some people can be homeless for years, the law of averages would tell us that many people are homeless for only a few days. Some homeless people do travel the country, about 35 percent of them, but most of that traveling occurs during the fall and spring, when the weather is milder.

We can also deduce that it takes approximately 4.76 hours of volunteer service to provide for each homeless guest for the night, (hours of service divided by the number of beds). This would include the person who spends just a few minutes dropping of supplies, to the person who spends 10 hours or more as an overnight host. There are many volunteer opportunities within the Room In The Inn program. It takes a lot of work to make it a success.

Food needs to be prepared and served. Beds need to be made, and laundry of all the linens for those beds need to be done. Drivers pick up and drop off the guests. Dishes need to be washed and put away after the dinner, as well as the clean up of the kitchen and dinning area. If showers and laundry facilities are made available to the homeless guests, someone will need to monitor and clean up after use. And if showers are available, that's more laundry that needs to be done. Someone would have to look after and disperse other supplies. If a clothing room is made available, someone will have to look after that. Beds, in whatever form, will need to be set up and taken down, and properly cleaned after each use. And clean up of the general areas used, and returning them to their regular configuration after the even is over. There are other things that person could do to volunteer, depending on what the organization provides. As you can see, there's a lot of work to be done. But it is a great activity, and you can certainly make short work of these tasks if you have many people involved. The Room In The Inn hand book is available online at RITIHandbook.pdf and it has a lot of great ideas.

Alas, all of the above is information from the administrators of the program. It is all good information, but what is missing is what the homeless have to say about the program. Well, there are a lot of different homeless people with a lot of different opinions. I am one such homeless person who, I imagine, has participated as a guest of Room In The Inn for longer than most, due to my chronically homeless condition. So I take this opportunity to tell some things about Room In The Inn from a homeless person's point of view. Actually, this is the second of three articles about Room In The Inn. Hopefully, it won't be just more of the same in each.

Every time I discuss Room In The Inn, I try to remember to give thanks to all the wonderful people who make the program a success. It is no exaggeration to say that Room In The Inn is the best winter shelter program for homeless people. Although the work of Room In The Inn is geared toward providing for the homeless, the volunteers doing all the work often describe a feeling of receiving more than they give. For all involved there are benefits to be had.

So, without further ado, more advice about Room Inn The Inn from the homeless guy.

  • Respect is the key.

It does seem to be Father Strobel's favorite word. He talks about it often, especially in the orientation given to every homeless person before participating in Room In The Inn. For respect to take place it has to be working in all directions. Homeless people need to be respectful of their hosts. And their hosts need to be respectful of the homeless in their care. Some times this doesn't work out as well as hoped. We are all human, and perfects always seems just beyond reach. And that is all the more reason to be respectful of each other as we struggle to get through life.

Although it is usually obvious when a homeless person is being disrespectful towards their hosts and the administrators of Room In The Inn, the disrespect that homeless people sometimes face from their hosts is often less than obvious. And there is a tendency of those providing for others to feel indignant if the work they are doing for others is criticized. Please know that I only say these things with the hopes of making the program better for everyone.

  • This is a homeless shelter, not the county lockup.

There are some churches that operate their Room In The Inn programs with the expectation that the homeless will misbehave. They treat the homeless more like prisoners in jail than like guests in church. Every unexpected move by a homeless person is questioned. Someone is always standing guard, watching every single thing that the homeless do. Yet equally disrespectful are those churches that pay no attention at all to their homeless guests. At one church in particular, the hosts leave the church after dinner is served, leaving the homeless alone to fend for themselves until the hosts return in the morning.

It is possible for a homeless person to misbehave but just the presence of someone from the church will discourage most every problem. The homeless know that to be disrespectful to anyone in the program is risking being banned from the program permanently.

When your guests first arrive at your church, please give them brief and accurate instructions on what is expected of them, including the basics of their sleeping arrangements. Some people have been hosting Room In The Inn events for so long that they get sloppy about this, forgetting to give out certain information, or worse, that they just assume that the homeless people in their care already know. Although you may feel you are only repeating yourself, and perhaps preaching to the choir, know from the statistics mentioned previously that there's a good chance that at least one person in your care has never been to your church for Room In The Inn before, and so they have no idea what's going on. And, again, your guests will only be with you for the night. There is no need to go into a long dissertation. Too many rules can ruin a good evening just as much as no rules. And, the homeless already know that you are doing this because of your devotion to, and love for, God. There is no need to belabor that point.

  • The more organized the church, the better the Room In The Inn program.

That seems pretty obvious but it couldn't hurt being talked about. There are some churches that have a completely different crew each week and they seem completely lost on what to do, and often they have to rely on the homeless to help them through it. And there are other churches where there are very few volunteers from the church, and they are stuck with having to do all the work every single week. And these people often get burned out long before the season is over. What seems to work best is to have two or three main organizers who are there every week who know where everything is and how everything is supposed to be done, and they supervise the work being done by a new and different crew of volunteers each week. That allows for consistency and dependability and for involving as many people as possible from the church, or organization, in the work to be done. The Cathedral of The Incarnation on West End Avenue and First Baptist Downtown Nashville are excellent examples of this. Each takes in 30 to 40 homeless people at a time. Such volume requires good organization.

  • Talk Talk Talk
As I mentioned before, sleep deprivation is rampant among the homeless population. Try spending a couple nights on the streets and see how much sleep you get. So, when able to get into a shelter like Room In The Inn, it is very important that focus be placed on providing the best possible opportunity for the homeless in your care to get quality sleep. This begins by making the sleeping area, including the bedding, as comfortable as possible. Of course this is rather difficult when all you have are army cots for the homeless to sleep on. Most of the churches that have been involved in the program for a couple years have upgraded to something better than the cots, but that are still many provide only the cots, or worse, thin mats on the floor. Beyond all this there is a problem at some churches where the volunteers, seeing the event as a special occasion to get together with others from the church, will spend a lot of their time chatting away in the very area designated for sleeping, or in the very next room, sometimes until 1am or later. This can make it difficult for some to get to sleep. Please be considerate of those trying to sleep.

  • Sleeping in.

Even God takes a day off once a week to rest up. But there is no such thing for homeless people. At the Nashville Rescue Mission the men are awaken at 5am 6 days a week. On Sunday, they are allowed to sleep in until 5:30am. Week after week, this can become a pain, if not a health hazard. And although churches are allowed to set their own hours, they all seem to follow this same time table. If I could make one request of the program, I would ask that at least one day a week the homeless be allowed to sleep in to a more sane hour, perhaps 7 or 8am. You have no idea what a luxury that would be for the homeless. The added rest would be a tremendous benefit.