Room in the Inn – the Urban Ministry Center’s winter shelter program – will close for the season Friday, after recording a 25 percent jump in family members and a 15 percent increase in children who needed a place to sleep.
Overall, the nonprofit program filled 17,180 beds with homeless people between Dec. 1 and March 31, using houses of faith, YMCAs, college dorms and schools.
That tally is only slightly above last year, but the number who came as part of a family rose to an all-time high of 221 people, including 145 infants and children.
Matt Daniels, who coordinates Room in the Inn, says that number includes two families who showed up for the first time the night before the program closed, on Wednesday. Those two families had a total seven children, he said.
“We’ve had more families than ever living on a razor thin margin, and one thing changed to make their lives fall apart,” said Daniels. “We had one person whose car broke down, and the expense of repairs was so much that they couldn’t get to work. These people have no back-up when the wheel falls off the bus.”
Mecklenburg County has seen a 29 percent drop in homelessness since 2010. But the number of homeless women with children has increased, a fact experts blame on low-wage jobs and a lack of affordable housing. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reported in 2015 that more than 4,100 students were homeless at some point during the school year.
Most of the families who used Room in the Inn this season were single women with children. However, Daniels says they also saw couples, men with children and even a grandparent caring for his grandchildren.
Room in the Inn works to get families with children into a more stable housing program, such as the Salvation Army Center of Hope. Charlotte Family Housing and Community Link also helped house some of the families.
College student Dasia Thomas, 18, and her mother were among the families who spent several weeks using Room in the Inn. The program eventually got the two into the Center of Hope.
The two had been evicted from their home and were sleeping some nights in a hospital lobby before turning to Room in the Inn, says Dasia Thomas.
“My mom was laid off from a really good job. She has a degree in computer science with 30 years experience, but that didn’t stop us from getting in this situation,” says Thomas, who would like to be a lawyer.
“Emotionally, my mom is taking this bad, because she feels she has let me down. She feels like I have lost a bit of my childhood, and she wants to make it up to me. But how can you do that?”
She says she can’t help but worry about the many people who’ll be left without an option after the program closes for the season. “Where will they go?” she asks.
Room in the Inn officials wonder the same thing. Matt Daniels says conversations with the homeless show some were sleeping in odd places, including one who was bedding down at night in a church’s garden.
This marks the 20th season for the program, which began at a time when Charlotte didn’t have a family shelter. Daniels said the idea was borrowed from a church in Nashville, Tenn., where families were seen sleeping in cars in the parking lot. The church’s pastor decided to invite those families in to sleep one night, and a program was born.
Daniels believes Room in the Inn is a sign of Charlotte’s spirit of hospitality. Money to help operate it comes via donations, including a large gift this year from the Ingersoll Rand Charitable Foundation.
It’s the first year Daniels has been in charge, and he said there were problems early on with six of the 140 host sites backing out of participation. Replacement sites were eventually found, but he says problems continue in finding enough beds on Sundays, when churches are typically booked up for other activities.
Room in the Inn is popular with families because the city’s other emergency shelter options divide men from the women. Men are sent to the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and mothers and children go to the Center of Hope, if it has room. In recent years, the Center of Hope has been at capacity and new arrivals only get in when another person leaves.
Among the more inspiring host sites, Daniels says, is the one operated by Threshold Church. The congregation is small, about 300 people, but it has set aside a three-bedroom home for Room in the Inn users. Among the amenities: a jacuzzi and hot tub.
Last month, Threshold even took seven of the men it hosted to see a movie, said Amy Russo, who helps coordinate the program at the church.
“Any of us could be in their shoes,” she said. “For that reason I feel touched by their struggles. It saddens me that they might feel unloved, and I want them to know that when times are hard, they can come here for one night and be given peace and warmth.”