Story and Photos by SAMANTHA HEARN
This month Nashville’s homeless program Room In The Inn began their winter shelter program, shuttling those without a place to go to churches in Williamson County and elsewhere for food, shelter and warmth.
Room In The Inn was founded in 1986 by pastor Charles Strobel, serving the needs of those struggling with homelessness in Nashville. What started with just four congregations has grown to nearly 200 area faith communities that open their doors to shelter guests from November to March every year.
“In the first year, I was just a pastor who was offering hospitality shuttles to a few churches,” Strobel said. “It led to a lot of questions as to if this could be done on a large scale, and it hasn’t gotten to where it is just because of me.”
Room In The Inn’s downtown Nashville center, located at 705 Drexel Street, offers emergency support, transitional programs and long-term solutions year-round. All of these programs place an emphasis on developing relationships that can support people on their journey.
“We work with all denominations of congregations,” Jeff Moles, Room In The Inn’s Community Development Coordinator, said. “The program isn’t based on what religion you are or where you come from. It’s based on what people need.”
Last year, Room In The Inn had approximately 7,000 volunteers who provided more than 157,000 hours of service. This work provided nearly 32,000 beds, approximately 25,000 showers and more than 63,000 meals to its homeless guests.
When guests come to Room In The Inn, they’re ushered in on a ticket system.
“We take the most vulnerable guests first, like women, people with special needs, older guests and the like,” Room In The Inn volunteer Mary Wilder said. “Everyone is given a ticket and we call them by their ticket numbers to usher them onto the buses when they get here.”
Moles said that Room In The Inn is kind of like an airport for homeless people that gets them to where they need to be.
“Vans from the churches come and pick them up here, they stay at the churches and then they’re brought back the next day,” he said.
Taking in up to 300 guests per night during winter months to as few as 150 during the warmer months, they are separated by groups of 9 to 15 to shuttle to the churches. Moles added that although Room In The Inn’s process may be arduous and somewhat complicated, it’s better overall for the guest.
“There could be more efficient or time-saving ways to shelter the homeless, but our focus is really on relationships and making sure people get that one-on-one experience, rather than just being in a room of 300 people,” Moles said.
Moles said that their peak numbers always happen in winter, and that volunteers are needed all the time. Congregational support comes in as an integral part of Room In The Inn’s mission.
“We have a lot of congregations in Williamson County,” Moles said. “Probably too many to name. While our guests are mostly from Nashville, we don’t normally think of Williamson County as a place that has a huge homeless population but they are there nonetheless. It’s more hidden than in Nashville, but there certainly is poverty.”
Moles also said that the congregations that participate in Williamson County, such as Brentwood United Methodist Church, Harpeth Hills Church of Christ, Nolensville First United Methodist, Thompson Station Church and many others, are always extremely generous and display an over-the-top type of hospitality.
At Harpeth Hills Church of Christ, Room In The Inn has been a staple part of their ministry ever since it was started over 30 years ago.
“Harpeth has done this since Room In The Inn sent their very first group,” John Borenstein with Harpeth Hills Church of Christ said. “We didn’t have as much as we do now back when it started, but today we have bedding we set them up with, a clothing closet, we cook them food and we have showers.”
In the first week of November, Harpeth Hills welcomed 11 guests on Thursday night from Room In The Inn, providing them with homemade ham, mac n’ cheese, cornbread, dessert, clean showers, bedding, clothing and more.
“We have so much space here,” Borenstein said. “It would be a terrible waste to have these buildings just sitting here when we know better and can offer our help.”
It’s not just churches that help out with Room In The Inn. Volunteer Sheri Riddell, who works at a healthcare company called Optum in Brentwood, regularly spends time at Room In The Inn and this year helped coordinate the donation of more than 300 pairs of socks, courtesy of Optum employees.
“I rounded up a group of coworkers and we came up with a way to give back by buying new socks for the guests at Room In The Inn,” Riddell said. “We just wanted to do something that we knew they would need and appreciate once winter comes.”
Guests of Room In The Inn are a varied demographic of both men and women, as well as all ethnicities.
“I came down here because someone told me this was a place you could come get free stuff,” Room In The Inn guest James Lewis said. “But I found out it was more than that. There are beautiful souls here. The staff members care, and they want to actually help people.”
Guest Matt Weise said that Room In The Inn has helped him tremendously within the past year after he became homeless.
“They’re the greatest people on earth,” Weise said. “Charles is my hero. They help people get back on their feet. I’m getting back on my feet thanks to these people. I hope in the future they put up more congregations.”
Room In The Inn is headquartered at 705 Drexel Street in Nashville. For more information visit www.roomintheinn.org.
Samantha Hearn reports for Home Page Media Group. She can be reached via email at [email protected].