This past week the temperatures have been frigid. The nights have dipped well below freezing and if you’re a family without a home, the prospect of where to spend a night like this can be unnerving.
But there are people here, in Elizabeth City, who care and have a real desire to help you. They are members of three downtown churches and they have created a program they call “Room in the Inn.”
“Room in the Inn” is an obvious reference to the birth of Jesus. The clergy and congregation members of First Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church and Christ Episcopal Church have banded together to open their doors to homeless families during the cold winter months.
These churches have made room in their buildings to house three homeless families and along with the homeless outreach organization Trinity Station counsel them and help them get back on their feet.
“Make sure we always have room and if not, figure out how we can make room,” says Brent Melton, rector at Christ Episcopal Church. “We’ve laid all of the groundwork and we’re ready to serve.”
The idea was to offer shelter during the month of January and extend it into February if needed. According to Hunter Michael, co-coordinator from Christ Episcopal, the committee met last Thursday and agreed to extend the program into February because two families will be evicted at the end of this month. They will be the first families to benefit from this new program.
The way the program works, according to Melton, is that all three churches take turns housing up to three families. The Red Cross provides cots and blankets and the churches provide the families with trunks for their belongings.
The families will he housed inside the churches. Congregation members volunteer to take shifts and assist the families around the clock.
The SOULS feeding program is held at Glad Tidings Church by Trinity Station, an outreach organization. The families are fed dinner there and they also have an opportunity to shower and do laundry there.
There is an evening van driver from the church who from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. will take the families from Trinity
Station at Glad Tidings Church to the church where they will sleep. From there three teams assist the families.
From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. there is a receiving team. Melton says this team is responsible for activities for the family as well as helping the kids with homework, setting up the rooms and getting the families comfortable for the night.
An overnight team comes in from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. This team will
make certain the family is safe and comfortable.
A morning team comes in at 5:30 a.m. to make breakfast and clean. Morris Cabs will provide rides to school for the children.
The origins of this program go back to 2009 when the three churches began looking for ways to work together. They would hold joint religious services but they would also team up to feed the hungry each day through the SOULS Feeding program.
That program saw members of these churches offering hot meals to whoever needed one in the evenings at the old Elizabeth City Middle School.
This past summer the clergy from these churches got together to talk about ways they could further reach out to the people of this community. Melton says one thing that spurred the idea of a homeless shelter was learning that, according to Elizabeth City Pasquotank Public School social worker Suzie Morgan, there are 147 children in the district who are classified as homeless.
Melton says they chose January to offer shelter because it is likely going to be the coldest month of the year. They are also set on starting “small and keeping it simple” in an effort to be successful.
“We can tweak it along the way,” he says.
So they will provide shelter and as Melton says, the group will let the program evolve as it goes along its way. But what happens when the family has to be put out after the program ends?
Melton says the families are not simply being given shelter in a vacuum. Rather, they will receive counseling along the way in hopes that their needs can be addressed and temporary housing and jobs can be secured. That would, the hope is, lead to long-term solutions for the family.
“That’s where learning about them (the families) is important,” says Trinity Station director Tim Gravgaard.
Trinity Station is a collaboration between area churches and the business community. The goal is to very simply end homelessness.
They are housed at the Glad Tidings Church downtown. From there, says Gravgaard, people are fed and the families involved in the program are able to receive basic hygiene needs. And while that’s going on, Gravgaard says that’s a perfect time to get to know them.
“Talk to them to find out what is going on; point them to current resources in the community,” he says.
One hurdle, however, is that the rental market in Elizabeth City does not match the pay scale in many cases. Finding a home for people and a job that can help them meet their basic needs including rent is a challenge.
“We’re looking at partnering with landlords or homeowners that would be willing to work with us,” says Gravgaard.
The families, after they leave Room in the Inn, are given the opportunity to receive one-to-two years of “intensive case management,” assisting them on getting back on their feet.
Gravgaard says where homelessness is concerned, there has to be an
“end game.” He believes that Room in the Inn and Trinity Station can be that end game.
“It takes the entire community to help work through this,” says Gravgaard.
Melton points out that it takes the community coming face-to-face with one another and stepping up to meet the problem. He says the churches are housing the families inside their buildings and some might ask why not build a shelter?
“Society is quick to build things that let us off the hook to do our Christian duty,” he says.
And that duty, he says, points him back to the baptismal rites, asking the questions, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace for all people?”
And Melton adds that the church, the building, belongs to God.
“God gave the church to do ministry,” he says.
Melton says that while the first two families will find succor with the three area churches beginning next week, he hopes this fledgling program will inspire other area churches to do the same and reach out to those in need.
He says he hopes to see more churches help house the homeless and perhaps the program will be able to extend beyond the winter months.
“We have to be willing to open our doors and say a church should become a public space,” Melton says.