I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me

Room in the Inn

Given their involvement with Homeward Bound’s Room in the Inn as coordinators for the All Souls’ program, one has to wonder if retirement will ever be in the cards for Mike and Susan Stevenson. They began volunteering for Room in the Inn during summers when school wasn’t in session (Mike was a principal, and Susan was a teacher), and with their retirement in 2002, they took on the responsibility of running the program.

For those who aren’t familiar with Room in the Inn, it is Homeward Bound’s most community-driven program, with more than 2,000 volunteers from 40 faith organizations mobilized every year. Room in the Inn partners with churches and synagogues to provide shelter for 12 women, one week at a time. The simple goal is to keep women without homes from sleeping on the street. The greater goal is to build caring, supportive relationships with them.

“We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” said Susan. But armed with Mike’s truck and Susan’s trailer, the Stevenson duo soon established a routine of mattress pickup from church-to-church and a stop at the Mission Hospital laundry for sheets and pillowcases. Susan found plates and other tableware at a thrift store, and “we use real napkins and tablecloths to make the experience as nice as possible,” she said.

Room in the Inn is a national model, and in Asheville, it was begun by a small group of women in 2001. In 2010, it became a program of Homeward Bound and expanded from its primary shelter role to include case management and working with the women toward finding permanent housing.

According to Mike and Susan, a typical day in a Room in the Inn week begins with picking up the women at the AHOPE Day Center at 5 p.m. AHOPE is also a Homeward Bound program and is the only day facility for homeless people in Western North Carolina. AHOPE provides basic services like showers and toiletries, as well as an address where homeless people can receive mail. But more importantly, AHOPE works with clients to find employment and transition out of homelessness.

The women in the program arrive at All Souls in time for dinner, and between a nutritious meal and lights out at 10 p.m., the week of evenings includes activities like music, chair massages, and hairdressing services. One parishioner provides flowers, which prompted a woman to remark, “You can tell there’s love here.”

“It’s a busy week, and we don’t do it alone,” said Mike. Approximately 60 to 65 volunteers come and go from Sunday to Sunday, providing setup, cleanup, bag lunches, and a host of other needs. Volunteers frequently stay for the evening meal, and Todd and Thomas have also broken bread with the women. “Todd usually comes once a week to eat with us,” Mike said, “and recently, Milly’s family provided one of our meals.”

“Our motivation has been not to participate as strangers but as a form of family,” Mike said. While other volunteers (two are required) spend the night at Room in the Inn, Mike and Susan arrive early each morning to provide breakfast for the women and transport them back to AHOPE with a sack lunch for the day.

Women who participate in Room in the Inn are carefully screened. They must be emotionally stable, not currently using drugs or alcohol, and willing to abide by the rules of the program, which prohibit drinking, smoking in the building, weapons, fighting, and foul language/abuse.

“They also have to be tolerant because they get a lot of the same food as they move from church to church,” Susan said. “We try to provide a good variety. I’m sure they get tired of tossed salad and spaghetti.”

Susan and Mike have started taking the women out for dinner on Saturday nights. They typically go to Ryan’s, where the enormous buffet is a big hit.

Participating churches pay $1,200 annually to Homeward Bound to be in the program, and each faith community commits to serving at least one week per year. At All Souls, the outreach committee provides additional funding for the Saturday evening dinner out, while parishioners contribute to weekly grocery bills and prepare daily bagged lunches.

Proselytizing is prohibited in the program, but there is always a blessing before a meal. “Sometimes the ladies want to do the blessings, and we offer a tour of the church, but participation is voluntary,” Susan said.

As women in the program move toward stability and permanence, Mike and Susan derive satisfaction from their journey and more importantly, the connections they make. “We’ve made friends through all the volunteers and through the ladies in the program,” Susan said. She recalled a trip downtown with her granddaughters when they happened upon several of the women from the program. “We got big hugs,” Susan said.

On the way back to All Souls following dinner at Ryan’s during August’s Room in the Inn week, one of the ladies sang the soulful ballad, “Lean on Me.”

“I think the lyrics of that song really fit how homelessness feels,” Mike said.

Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow

But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong

I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on

For it won’t be long before I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.

There but for the grace of God…

by Susan Blexrud

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