Saturday, after the treadmills log their last miles for the night and the Zumba dancers pour out of the studios, University City YMCA will become a haven for a dozen or so of the city’s homeless.
For the last three years University City YMCA has partnered with the Urban Ministry Center’s Room in the Inn program to provide a warm, safe place to sleep, three meals and a shower for those living on the streets.
The Room in the Inn program began in 1996 as a means for local congregations and other facilities of faith to offer a night of comfort for Charlotte’s homeless community. Last year, 130 different organizations served 1,555 guests through the program.
University City YMCA’s participation began as an offshoot to its annual Thanksgiving Day dinner, which provides a traditional holiday meal to hundreds of underserved guests each year.
Both events rely on volunteers to make them work.
Barbara Urch volunteered at the last Room in the Inn event held at the YMCA, and will help out at this Saturday’s event as well. Urch is the children’s director at Elevation Church’s University City campus. At least 20 members of the congregation will volunteer for the night as well.
“There’s so many people who want to serve and give hope to people. That’s what we’re here for,” Urch said.
Volunteers can help set up for the meal, greet people as they come in, inflate air mattresses or even serve dinner; but one of the most important roles is to simply sit down and talk with the guests, and make them feel welcome.
“There’s a stigma around this population of people that don’t have a home,” said Jenny Griffes, a performing arts director at the University City YMCA who also helps organize the night. “They’re just normal people. They’ll tell you about their kids. They’ll talk about TV shows. They want to have a conversation.”
At the last event, Urch helped turn four dance studios into a game room, a movie theater and two bedrooms. They draped curtains to cover up the mirrors, set out tables of snacks and socialized.
“In the beginning it was quiet for about five to 10 minutes. Then the joking started in,” said Urch. “Just to hear the laughter was priceless. It took them out of their circumstance, and we were able to honor them and respect them, and they felt that.”
Each guest is served breakfast, a bag lunch and a hot dinner.
Past dinners have included a taco bar and lasagna. This Saturday, guests will dine on fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and dessert. All meals are provided entirely through donations.
“We try to give them something that they wouldn’t usually have,” said Griffes. “They’re very appreciative.”
It’s only for one night, but it’s one less night in the cold and rain.
“We can take away for one night their worrying about where their food is going to come from, or where they’re going to lay their heads, or whether somebody is going to steal their valuables,” Urch said. “They need the hope, and we have it.”