If you’ve volunteered for Room in the Inn at a local church, synagogue or nonprofit that provides emergency winter shelter for Memphians experiencing homelessness, you know what it’s like to serve these honored guests for dinner, an overnight stay and breakfast, before they’re bused back downtown at 6 a.m. for another day on the streets. You also know what it’s like to see the looks of gratitude and relief on their faces, often mixed with fatigue, embarrassment, despair, fear, frustration, sadness and resignation.
Dishing up breakfast last week to 14 visitors at Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church, I was glad some seemed to appreciate my latest attempt at homemade biscuits. When I said I thought they needed some extra butter, one elder in line for seconds cheerfully spoke up: “I’m sure they’re just fine, honey — and if they still need some work, you just keep workin’ on ’em!”
It wasn’t the first time I’ve received sage counsel from someone who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.
Putting a face and some real social time on an otherwise abstract issue is a huge takeaway from volunteering to mitigate this devastating circumstance for the most poverty-stricken of our fellow Memphians.
There is another way to help: by volunteering with the Community Alliance for the Homeless for the Jan. 22 Point-in-Time Count of the homeless in Memphis and Shelby County. The national yearly count is mandated for communities that receive federal money to fight this devastating problem. The count helps organizations gauge the scope of the problem and track their progress in alleviating it.
In 2019, 1,325 sheltered and unsheltered people (sleeping in streets, parks, encampments and vehicles) were counted, an increase of 100 over 2018, according to the alliance.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty points to four main causes of homelessness in the United States: lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and insufficient services for mental health and substance abuse issues. And for women, domestic violence is a leading cause.
In Memphis, poverty is on the rise, while declining nationally, according to University of Memphis poverty researcher and Poverty Fact Sheet author Dr. Elena Delavega. In 2018, Memphis’ overall poverty rate was 27.8% (up from 24.6% over 2017), more than double the U.S. rate (12.3%, down from 13.4% in 2017).
For black Memphians, the numbers point to even more dire circumstances: 33.8% compared to 11.8% for whites and 28.8% for Latinos, according to the report. Children are the most affected, with a rate of 44.9% vs. 17.5% nationally.
Reflecting the increase in childhood poverty, the 2019 Point-in-Time Count of those under 18 rose from 217 to 365. So, it’s not surprising the demand for emergency shelter consistently exceeds the available space.
Alise Davis, Room in the Inn board chairwoman, said despite consistent program growth since 2010, they regularly turn prospective guests away due to lack of space: “Even with 55 hosting partners, participation isn’t evenly distributed throughout the week, so some nights we have to turn many away. And since we give priority to women and children, there were 12 nights in November and December when we accepted no men at all.”
Davis also noted the 570 turned away in November and December doesn’t include the men who don’t show when they know there won’t be room for them.
As much as they’re needed, emergency shelters and more supportive housing won’t solve the roots of the homelessness problem. According to Delavega, the deeper problem involves lack of accessible public transportation, a relatively unskilled workforce and county municipalities that use city services but don’t contribute, “… depriving Memphis of the funds it needs to support the region.”
Among other things, this highlights the importance of current efforts to fund MATA improvements, to get public transit to those who need it most.
What can you do to help?
- Encourage your place of worship to serve Room in the Inn. You can also volunteer to help with a group that is already serving.
- If you’re 18 or older, sign up now to help with Community Alliance for the Homeless’ Point in Time Count next Wednesday, Jan 22. There were 94 slots still open on Tuesday, with morning shifts starting at 4, 6:30 and 9:30 a.m., to help with street counts and distribute care bags. You may also donate care bag items, and use their homeless outreach form to notify alliance staff about someone you know who is living unsheltered.
- Support efforts to eliminate systemic poverty in Memphis. One way to do that is through working with one of the organizations collaborating with Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH).
Jeff Lehr is a freelance writer and culinary coach who enjoys serving Room in the Inn at Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church.
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