The following is reprinted from the Trinity Presbyterian Church newsletter. Tricia Sistrunk lives in Charlotte with her husband and three children. She is a stay-at-home mom, attorney, blogger for thelunchproject.org, and RITI Coordinator at Trinity.
On March 20, 2013, we concluded another successful season of Room In The Inn (RITI) here at Trinity. Successful in the sense that we were able to provide food and shelter for 138 men, women, and children during the twelve nights we hosted. However, my idea of true success would mean we no longer have a need for the RITI program. We would no longer need the 60 or 70 volunteers it takes to run RITI. We would no longer need the closet at the back of our Fellowship Hall filled with mattresses, pillows, sheets, towels, toiletries, shirts, underwear, socks, hats, and gloves. We would no longer need the small shower down the hall used by our homeless guests to clean up after a hard day. Alas, we are not there yet.
According to Urban Ministry Center's 2013 count, there are approximately 2418 homeless people in Mecklenburg County, of which 738 are children. In fact, there was a disheartening 61% increase in the number of homeless families served by RITI this year.
The RITI program was started by the Urban Ministry Center in 1996 with two goals in mind. The first, to provide a warm, safe and dry place for Mecklenburg county's homeless population during our coldest months – December through March. Approximately 130 area churches and colleges participate in the RITI program by taking in twelve to fourteen homeless people on their assigned evening. There are usually ten to fifteen host sites on any given night.
The second goal of the RITI program is to provide a personal relationship with homeless people and a deeper understanding of the issue of homelessness. When most people hear the word homeless, the image that often comes to mind is of “street homelessness.” There are, of course, many chronically homeless people here in Mecklenburg County and across the country who, often due to mental or physical disabilities and/or addiction, are unable to maintain employment, pay their bills, and keep supportive social relationships.
However, the more prevalent face of homelessness is the working poor and their families. The lack of affordable housing combined with the lack of jobs has led to more and more families living in their cars, hotel rooms, and in shelters.
I have personally experienced a little bit of everything during my six years of being involved with RITI. There have certainly been mentally ill guests, all of whom have left an indelible impression on me. They are truly the “least of these” among us and I can’t help but wonder and worry about them during April through November when there is no RITI to keep them off the streets.
This season I also met a young married couple expecting twins in June. Like a nervous parent, I asked them if they had any housing prospects. They said they were working on it and hopefully they would be in an apartment by June. I can only pray that I won’t see them again next season with their babies in tow.
There was Lisa who was concerned when the hot water in our RITI shower ran out. Lisa had a job interview the next morning. She was excited about the possibility of employment but she knew she had to look clean. My heart sank as I thought about my showers filled with hot water back home. I was happy to learn that the hot water came back on an hour or so after I left the church and Lisa got her hot shower. I never found out whether she got the job.
I met a former girl scout when Girl Scout Troop 1335 came to help serve dinner and set up the beds for our guests. The girl scouts brought smiles to all of our guests but especially Dana. Dana, now in her fifties, reminisced about her days as a girl scout. As I imagined this now homeless woman as a smiling, young girl scout I wondered what events had led her to this place in life.
Perhaps the hardest for me to handle are the children we have as guests. We had a family of four – a mom and her three kids ages 11, 9 and 5. I watched as the kids played on the weekday school playground after dinner. A normal sight for sure. After all, I have watched all three of my kids play on that same playground many times over the years. But, my heart knew there was nothing normal about it. Church floors and homeless shelters are no place for children.
My list of stories goes on and on and I know the other RITI volunteers have their stories as well. Several of our regular drivers and overnight hosts have told me over and over again how much they enjoy getting to know our guests.
A couple of weeks after volunteering for RITI, the girl scouts decided, on their own, to come back and bring homemade desserts for our guests. Once they arrived at the church they asked their parents if they could stay and help out again. I was touched to see these girls, at such a young age, experience the joy of helping others as well as learn about the issue of homelessness. Perhaps this is the true meaning of success.
The goals of Urban Ministry’s RITI program are being met here at Trinity. So too is the greater goal of living a life filled with compassion as Jesus taught us to do.
I am grateful that Trinity has chosen to support this important ministry. As one of our guests said to me as we hugged goodbye, “Thank you for living the good life.”