© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

There is room at this inn: Houses of worship open their doors to homeless

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2008 - On this night, as on all others, a religious congregation -- perhaps the one down the street -- will open its doors to homeless guests from an emergency shelter in St. Louis County.

"Come on in. Come on in," a member of the host church or synagogue might say, as did Kathy Hasse, on this December evening at Shaare Emeth.

"The cupcakes have spice in them,'' she announced. "If the green bean casserole isn't hot enough, we can heat it up.''

Haase and her daughter Lauren, 14, and sister Leslee Rubin fussed about the synagogue's kitchen, serving fried chicken, rice and salad -- and coaxing their six guests to help themselves. There was plenty. And afterward, a safe room to sleep in, all bedding supplied, with volunteers to watch over them. After breakfast in the morning, volunteer drivers would shuttle them back to the shelter in Bridgeton.

On this night, members of a church across town were performing these tasks for a second group of homeless people from the shelter. And tomorrow night, two different congregations would step up to do the same.

The shelter's name, fittingly, is Room at the Inn, and it is sponsored by a Catholic order, the Sisters of Divine Providence, working with the St. Louis County Homeless Service Providers Network and the Homeless Hotline.

The program, which is limited to 20 clients at a time, provides emergency, temporary shelter to about 200 people a year -- women and families only. What sets this program apart is its reliance on the community to shelter its clients at night.

Fifty-five congregations of 18 faiths -- Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Mennonites, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Adventists, you name it -- welcome up to 10 clients from Room at the Inn at least one night every month. That includes weekends and holidays, good weather and bad.

Sister Joann Nowak, the shelter's program director, says it all works because of the organization and dedication of the volunteers -- hundreds of them -- who have been doing this for 15 years.

Adding up a lot of "nothings"

"I do nothing,'' said Andy Burch, as he stood in the kitchen at Shaare Emeth, watching volunteers warm that night's dinner for the homeless.

His "nothing" is helping his wife Janne Burch, who organizes the food that will later be served by Hasse and her crew.

Truth be told, she makes all the side dishes and also prepares the breakfast served the next morning because by the time she would make all the necessary calls, "I might as well do it myself."

The Burches are just two of the "unseen" volunteers who support the night's effort.

"My little part of it is the food,'' said Janne Burch, shrugging.

The Burches have been doing their little part for just under 10 years, a contribution that they insist requires only a small investment of their time and resources.

"Can you imagine? Can you imagine? Being displaced. Can you imagine? So many of us could be in the same boat if something happens and you don't have a support network,'' Janne Burch said.

Her husband points to the uniqueness of the program.

"The same thing happens at the church up the street,'' he said. "Everybody does a small part, but it is organized so well.''

Nowak says the shelter's dependence on the community is one of its greatest strengths. Because the shelter operates as a day site only, it saves thousands of dollars a year in food, space, utilities and salaries and can concentrate its resources on getting residents to the next step in their recovery. At the same time, Nowak says, the program "puts a face on homelessness" for the hundreds of volunteers who come to know their guests as individuals.

In the past, the shelter's clients have been primarily women and their children who are victims of domestic violence, but the economic downturn is expanding the population in need, Nowak said. The shelter carefully screens its clients to ensure both the safety of its volunteers and other residents and is now seeing more families. Some have been living paycheck to paycheck and because of a job loss were evicted because they can no longer pay their rent.

Shelter stays are limited to 30 days, during which time clients are connected to other social agencies in the county's Continuum of Care network. These organizations provide a variety of homelessness prevention services, including transitional and permanent housing.

Nowak says it is often a core group of volunteers at the various congregations who keep the night sites running smoothly.

"They often make a big deal out of their one night,'' Nowak said.

That includes fellowship and useful gifts -- socks, toiletries and scarves for homeless people whose belongings fit on one shelf at the shelter.

David Gerst, the program's longtime coordinator at Shaare Emeth, says working with the homeless keeps him mindful of all he has in life, even in these difficult economic times.

"I'm still so blessed with all that surrounds me," Gerst said. "This brings me back to reality."

A network that ran out

The six homeless guests at Shaare Emeth on this icy winter night pointed out that no one ever expects to be homeless.

Not the 55-year-old woman who says she lost her job as an aide in a mental hospital and then lost the home she had worked overtime to buy.

Not the couple who lost their jobs in Detroit and moved to St. Louis to find work -- but have had no luck.

"I appreciate the Room at the Inn for giving me a roof,'' said one of the women, who recently returned to St. Louis after trying to find work in another state. "It beats sleeping on the street or in an abandoned building. It's a blessing to me."

Part of the safety provided by Room at the Inn is ensured by the shelter's enforcement of rules, they say. At the same time, it can be difficult to follow such a strict regimen -- and to sleep in a different location every night.

Alicia Miller, 42, who agreed to speak to the Beacon, had spent three weeks at Room at the Inn. She said she plans to attend a local university in January, if disability payments begin in time. Miller said she is a Navy veteran and had battled bipolar disorder. Her story could fill a book, but here is the summary sentence: She is well educated and well spoken, and said she has been homeless for several years after losing her job and exhausting her personal support network.

Miller is a computer wiz who has spent hours working at the shelter's computer. She is building a website about environmental issues. She defines Room at the Inn as a "nomadic program" but "you make it work," because of the kindness found not only at the day center but at the night sites, where bed might be a cot or an air mattress on the floor.

"The food is excellent at the churches. It is ladies who make the pie crust from scratch, and they put their heart in it,'' she said.

At Shaare Emeth, for example, volunteers made hand-knitted scarves for all of the night's guests, Miller said.

On this night, while the other shelter guests played cards or watched television, Miller sat on her temporary bed reading a publication from the university she hopes to attend.

"School would take me a world away from what I've been going through,'' she said. "Being in a shelter every day weighs on you."

That said, she credits Nowak and the Room at the Inn staff for making her stay as positive as possible.

"Sister Joann says that this year people haven't given as much to the program, but we don't feel it,'' Miller said. "We're thankful. It's a blessing."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.