In the coldest months of the year we shelter the homeless here in Columbia. Many cities do the same – differently according to size and need. The Room in the Inn program is one way and this year the doors of Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church are open, staffed by volunteers by our many different church communities. Broadway’s week was this one and we will have another later in the winter.
I was familiar with Room in the Inn from two previous churches, one in St. Louis and one in Ft. Worth, Texas. The idea is always the same: screened applicants are given lodging for the night and a humane and safe place to sleep. And volunteers are present during different times for the sake of supervision.
Like many others, I have stayed the night before. This tour of duty is often the hardest to fill because people feel anxious about being there alone. Mostly the night shift is about occupying yourself while the dead tired are snoring away in the next room. Because of that it’s very quiet in the depths of the night. People with no place to call home are usually exhausted. They are just scrambling for survival. And the colder it gets generally the more urgent it gets. Humane communities figure out affordable and humane housing solutions for long-term and critical/short-term needs.
The causes of homelessness are many, but the typical ones include poverty, job loss, mental illness and drug addiction, a financial crisis, and chronic homelessness – which is actually a relatively small percentage of the entirety. We have lots of students in our public schools who are homeless, often doubling up with relatives or friends, couch surfing with friends. People who lost their jobs, homes and cars in this most recent economic meltdown were shocked to find themselves in a shelter looking for help.
As I beheld our population of those seeking shelter last night I recognized some from the previous year. For some this is a way of life. But there are those for whom this is an episode, a chapter of desperation out of which they will climb – with a little help from their friends.
I’ll never forget staying the night one time in my former church in St. Louis. I struck up a conversation with a young woman who didn’t fit the norm of a typical person seeking shelter. She was a college student who shared an apartment off campus with two roomies. When they bailed on her she was left holding the proverbial bag of the lease and monthly rent. It was over her head. She had no family in town. And there she was in a church basement, going to college and wondering how in the world she ended up in a homeless shelter. How indeed.
A lot of myths have to be dispelled, too. I remember one church that was struggling with beginning an initiative for sheltering the homeless. Every irrational fear surfaced. What might happen? How about security? Will we need a fleet of crisis counselors on hand if a volunteer is traumatized? Shall we disinfect the areas the homeless may have touched? (Because we know it’s catching). In retrospect such concerns are exposed for what they are – laced with irrational fears and deep biases. But at the time they seem real to people – especially those who have been isolated from poverty, both domestic and international. They panic. They have no emotional tool kit at their disposal. It takes cool heads who have been around to return sanity to the room.
When I sit in the shelter late at night I occupy myself with a variety of mindless things, reading, games. But sometimes I pray and I pray for everyone in the shelter. I pray that they will be kept safe, that their future may be hopeful. I lift them up as a group like you would fly a kite. I hope it catches a breeze and sails.
I also remember that Jesus was an itinerant, homeless, depending on the hospitality of others. It was he who said that foxes have holes, the birds have their nests, but the son of man has no where to lay his head. The homeless God. And the homeless God is always sleeping with the homeless wherever they are because, well, that’s just the way he is.