Changing the Face of Homelessness to One That We Know

About 5 years ago, I had the chance to have a conversation with the founding director of Room in the Inn, Charles Strobel, that changed my life. He shared with me how the ministry started, how it has grown, and how God has led along the way. On a cold winter night in 1985, there were several homeless people camped outside his church doors. The contrast of the warm empty church with the cold parking lot and the Holy Spirit’s leading caused him to open the doors of the church and allow the homeless to spend the night in his church.

Now, 170 congregations across Nashville provide similar care for the homeless, not only providing individuals with a warm bed, meals and opportunities for showering and laundry, but providing personal care to each individual in need. I think the most important work of Room in the Inn is changing the face of the homeless from panhandler to person, from drunkard to disadvantaged, from lazy to loved.

The first time I sat at a table as I volunteered with Room in the Inn, I was disconcerted with the fact that I could not clearly distinguish homeless from other volunteers. We talked the same, laughed at the same things, had college educations, wanted health and happiness. And it was only by God’s grace that I got to go back to my own home that day, instead of wondering where I would be sleeping the next night.

It reminds me again of the Shane Claiborne quote, “The great tragedy in the Church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” Room in the Inn changes the church as much as the church changes the homeless.

And Room in the Inn is much more than just coordinating churches to house the homeless. They provide classes on everything from GED training to art classes to computer literacy. Our PA students have been going to Room in the Inn to do weekly workshops for the residents, providing health tips for the participants. (Have you ever thought about how hard it is to come up with attainable health tips for the homeless? Our students do a great job with a nearly impossible task!) 

On Room in the Inn’s main campus, there is also a Guest House for intoxicated individuals as an alternative to jail. And in partnership with the Metro Government, the Guest House offers food and shelter 24 hours a day to individuals undergoing alcohol and drug treatment.

Room in the Inn also has a program that helps chronically homeless individuals gain life skills necessary to move toward stability in their lives  including healing, education, life skills, recovery, job readiness, and housing.

One of my favorite things that Room in the Inn does is provide care for homeless individuals being discharged from the hospital. If you’ve ever been hospitalized, you know that by the time you are released you are nowhere near 100%. You surround yourself with family and friends to check on you, help with food and drink, and do “heavy lifting” chores for you. If you are homeless, you are released to the stress of worrying about where you are going to sleep and find food, and there is no opportunity for rest and recovery. Now Room in the Inn’s Respite program gives homeless individuals the chance to recover from hospitalization and surgery in a clean and safe environment. Medical providers can refer patients to the Respite program, knowing that their patients will have a chance for recovery.

Room in the Inn has a Veteran’s program to help those who have served our country with transitional services, education, and case management.

Room in the Inn has many other services it offers the homeless (for things that we often take for granted) in a relational setting. A place to eat. A hot shower. A mailbox to receive mail. Help obtaining identification documents in order to gain access to government services.

Room in the Inn simply does great work connecting The Church with the homeless of our community, and serving the homeless as Christ himself would.

But such great work cannot be done alone! Last year 5,000 volunteers gave well over 100,000 hours of service to the individuals served by Room in the Inn, and there is more work to be done. In addition, Room in the Inn regularly needs donations of material goods to use directly, in classes, or to give participants a chance to earn as they take part in educational classes.

Here is Room in the Inn’s current wish list. (Click here for a printable PDF.)

  • AA and AAA batteries
  • air fresheners
  • antacids
  • antifungal foot cream (OTC, generic ok)
  •  art gift cards-plaza, the art store
  •  art supplies
  • backpacks
  • baseball caps
  • batteries (AA and AAA)
  • bleach
  • body spray (travel size men’s) 
  • books
  • boots (new only)
  • boxers and boxer briefs (adult sizes, new only)
  • brushes
  • bus passes (one way/all day)
  • calculators
  • canned goods
  • canvas (art supplies)
  • cd players with headphones
  • cd’s
  • chapstick
  • coffee
  • colored pencils
  • copy paper (colored)
  • copy paper (white)
  • cough drops
  • deodorant (travel size men’s)
  • dish soap
  • disposable razors (double/triple bladed)
  • double/triple blade razors
  • fabric softener sheets
  • fast food gift cards
  • feminine hygiene products
  • file folders
  • flip-flops, rubber (new only-men’s sizes L and XL)
  • folders
  • foot powder (travel size men’s)
  • fresh fruits
  • fresh vegetables
  • gift cards (Kroger, Target, Wal-Mart preferred)
  • gloves (new only, adult sizes)
  • gum
  • hair care items
  • hand warmers
  • hanging file folders
  • hats (new only, adult sizes)
  • hooded sweatshirts (new only – adult size –XL to 4XL)
  • laundry detergent
  • leather (art supplies)
  • long distance phone cards
  • long underwear (new only – adult size – L, XL to 4XL)
  • lotion (travel size men’s)
  • magazines
  • magic markers
  • men’s white socks (new only)
  • mints
  • movie passes
  • new computer equipment
  • note pads
  • notebook paper
  • office supplies
  • oil paints
  • paints (art supplies)
  • paper towels
  • pencils
  • pens
  • phone cards (long distance)
  • playing cards
  • puzzle books
  • quality software – MS Office Suite, adult educational software
  • radios (am/fm) with headphones
  • razors
  • reading glasses (all strengths)
  • sewing kits
  • shampoo (travel size)
  • shaving cream (travel size men’s)
  • shoes (new only)
  • sketch pads
  • snacks (non-perishable)
  • soap
  • socks (white, new only)
  • softscrub
  • spiral notebooks
  • store gift cards (Kroger, Target, Wal-Mart preferred)
  • sugar-free candy
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen
  • sweatshirts (new only, adult size – L, XL to 4XL)[hooded preferred]
  • tapes, audio
  • tea
  • three ring binders
  • tiles for art room
  • toiletries
  • tooth brushes
  • toothpaste (travel size)
  • tote bags
  • tote bags with zippers
  • t-shirts (new only, adult size – L, XL to 4XL)
  • underwear (new only)


For more information or to sign up for a tour or orientation, please contact Hilary Barnett, Volunteer Manager, at

***This year during Lent, I’m going to highlight organizations and individuals that are giving to this community, and around the world. Most are faith-based, some are not. All are serving the poor. My focus is drawing nearer to the heart of God, by drawing nearer to those He cares for: the poor, the widows, the outcasts, the foreigner, the orphans.



Feeding the Foreigners Among Us

Ken and I lived in the boys’ dormitory at Trevecca for three years, while we were both in graduate school. Those are definitely some of the most, well, um, interesting years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. There were so many of the guys who found their callings, their spouses, the careers, and it was great to be a part of their lives. Even though they are all graduated and long gone, I still keep in touch with many of them and love to see what God is doing in them and through them.

One of the things we soon realized after moving into the dorm nearly 9 years ago was that there were many students who never went home for breaks. Some chose to stay and work, some simply didn’t want to return home, but others had no choice — especially the international students.

Since Ken is not an American, we’ve always had a soft place in our hearts for immigrants. There are many restrictions placed on international students, especially in regard to where and how much they can work. Typically, they are restricted to only working on campus at student worker rates. While this is okay while school is in session, it becomes difficult over breaks like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring breaks when they cannot afford to go home, but the school’s cafeteria is closed. While we were in the dorm, we tried to watch out for (and feed!) international students. Now that we’ve moved off campus, I’ve tended to forget that we have students for whom breaks are very stressful because of a lack of financial, food, and kitchen resources.

Right now there are international Students from South Korea, The Philippines, Kenya, Madagascar, United Kingdom, Serbia, Canada, and The Bahamas at Trevecca in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Trevecca is seeking to gather a food pantry together for next week’s spring break and for future needs of international students. They are collecting snacks, gift cards, and microwaveable items to include in break gift packs for these students. Suggested items are microwaveable rice and soup; non-refrigerated meals like Hormel; gift cards to Subway, Sonic, or New Life Café. Items can be dropped off at the Office of Admissions in the lower floor of the Library during business hours (or I can take them!).

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 NIV says, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.  And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

***This year during Lent, I’m going to highlight organizations and individuals that are giving to this community, and around the world. Most are faith-based, some are not. All are serving the poor. My focus is drawing nearer to the heart of God, by drawing nearer to those He cares for: the poor, the widows, the outcasts, the foreigner, the orphans.

Because Being Homeless Is Not Just About Housing

Like it or not, Nashville is a pretty good place to be homeless. There are dozens of organizations who feed, shelter, clothe, and provide services for those facing unstable housing situations. And while homeless services are desperately needed, providing temporary housing cannot be the end of the story. One organization that I have come to greatly appreciate over the last four years is Urban Housing Solutions, who focuses on providing permanent and affordable housing for the homeless.

While being a great housing agency, Urban Housing Solutions also recognizes that homelessness is not just about having a roof over one’s head. There are often many financial, health, and social problems that contribute to homelessness as well. Urban Housing has put together a team of social service coordinators to help residents connect with government and nonprofit resources. What started in the early 1990’s with one property a block from Trevecca, has now grown to 26 different properties all over town. Many have a specialized housing focus: recently homeless, mentally ill, HIV positive, recovering addicts, deaf and hard of hearing, but all provide affordable housing and supportive services.

I began working with Urban Housing Solutions shortly after I began working at Trevecca in 2008. Together with Health Advocate, Traci Patton, we developed a plan to use physician assistant students to help with some of the health needs of the community. In 2008, it was not uncommon for residents to call for an ambulance because of a headache or toothache. Diabetic residents were being found unconscious in the parking lot from uncontrolled blood sugar because of lack of understanding of the disease. Too many residents were dying of preventable diseases, just a block from our campus.

So we started doing weekly workshops and semiannual health fairs with our friends of Mercury Courts, the closest Urban Housing Solutions property. We’ve worked on grants together. We’ve held food drives. We’ve tried to meet material needs for clothing, hygiene, and cleaning supplies. We’ve done life together. One of the great benefits of working with this group of people as they transition from homelessness back into society is the relationships I’ve built with so many of them. They are some of the most real people you’ll ever meet. No pretense. No unnecessary social niceties. Just real.

They are sellers of The Contributor, manual laborers, disabled due to fragile health,  HIV positive, writers, college graduates, grandparents, McDonald’s workers. And I see a glimpse of God Himself in each one of them. 

Though progress has been slow, residents are now making wiser decisions about their health and access to health resources. The ambulance calls have decreased. Health questions are answered on a weekly basis. Residents are connected with a primary care provider who knows them. But one of my greatest joys is that Urban Housing and Trevecca are partnering with the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing to bring a primary care clinic to Urban Housing Solutions, which is slated to open May 1st, 2012 at the Mercury Courts location.

Great work is being done to help people transition out of homelessness in Nashville at Urban Housing Solutions.

Because UHS helps people transition out of homelessness, there is a lot of material need. After all, if you’ve been homeless, you probably need things like sheets, blankets, dishes, etc. in addition to food, clothing, and medicine. Urban Housing Solutions published this list as their “wish list.”

Urban Housing Solutions

Wish List


Household Items for Formerly Homeless Residents:

  • full-size sheets, blankets, and comforters
  • pillows
  • towels and washcloths
  • pots, pans, dinnerware, and silverware
  • laundry baskets
  • hygiene products (soap, shampoo, razors, deodorant, etc.)
  • cleaning products (brooms, bathroom cleaner, toilet brushes, sponges, furniture polish, Windex, new vacuum cleaners)

Donations for Programs and Special Projects:

  • resident shuttle service—annual cost is about $30,000+—this service employs one of our formerly homeless residents as its driver and ensures that our residents are able to make it to medical and social service appointments, grocery stores, and employment.
  • resident education—annual cost varies with funding—we provide on-site classes in everything from healthy cooking to money management to basic computer skills.
  • resident assistance fund—this fund allows our case management staff to help our residents with basic needs—food, household items, medical costs, obtaining government identification, eyeglasses, dental care, bus passes, etc.


  • people to teach resume writing, job search, interviewing, job skills, etc.
  • groups to plant flowers, trim bushes, and improve the general appearance of a property

Want to Help? 

Please Call Brandi Ghergia at 726-2696, ext. 114. 

Donations may be dropped of at our main location:  411 Murfreesboro Pike; Nashville,TN 37210. 

Urban Housing Solutions, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

***This year during Lent, I’m going to highlight organizations and individuals that are giving to this community, and around the world. Most are faith-based, some are not. All are serving the poor. My focus is drawing nearer to the heart of God, by drawing nearer to those He cares for: the poor, the widows, the outcasts, the orphans.

Defending the Needy by Speaking Through a Can

I’ve seen him walking the streets in our community for years. There was always something peculiar about his posture, his “swiftly and with purpose” walk, his skin that is weathered by the elements, but mostly the bags of cans in his hands. I didn’t know where he came from. Or if he had escaped from somewhere.

Until this week.

I found out the man in our community is “Donnie” and he’s been a fixture of the community for years. Mentally and verbally challenged but friendly and persistent, Donnie makes the rounds on the major roadways in our community, picking up aluminum cans. As unprofitable and laborious as this sounds, especially in a state with no deposit on aluminum cans, this is how Donnie supports himself. Faithfully making his rounds in the community, cheerfully converting our garbage into his livelihood, everyone who knows Donnie seems to love him.

So it must have been someone who didn’t know him who took 7 or 8 garbage bags of cans from his home here in Donelson.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story.

When word got out on Facebook about what happened to Donnie, our community began to rally. Individuals, churches, businesses began to empty their pockets and recycling bins for Donnie. Within 48 hours, hundreds of dollars had been raised (and is still continuing to be raised) and Donnie has even been featured on the local news.

For a man with a speech impediment who cannot speak for himself, I find it’s a beautiful thing when citizens of our community take to heart  Proverbs 31:8-9, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly;  defend the rights of the poor and needy.” 

Sometimes we can speak with words.

Sometimes we can speak with dollars.

Sometimes it just takes a few cans.

Who are you speaking for?

That Sneaky Thing Called Lent

Is it just me, or did Lent suddenly sneak up on us this year? Last year, I had carefully planned out my six clothing items for my Lenten sacrifice of only wearing 6 items of clothing. This year, it was Fat Tuesday before I realized that I needed to consider what to give up for Lent.

While that sounds like a perfect setup for a rushed decision, truthfully, God had already laid it out for me in the book I’ve been reading by Jen Hatmaker, “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” Jen felt challenged to identify seven areas of excess in her life and took radical steps to loosen the bonds of materialism that our culture shackles us with. She balances spiritual depth with laugh-out-loud hilarity as she writes things that most of us would say with our “inside the head” voice. Each month, she made radical sacrifices in the areas of food (choosing only seven items to eat for an entire month), clothes (wearing only seven items for a month), possessions (giving away seven items per day), waste, spending, media, stress.

Ken wasn’t as excited as I was to only eat seven foods for a month, and it really wouldn’t be fair for me to punish him with avocados and bread for a month. I’ve already done the clothing challenge. The next chapter was about giving away possessions.


I have far too much junk in my life, and especially in my basement. The “just in case” and “what if we” items are crowding out our dependence on God to provide in His timing. There’s also a whole lot that I just need to let go of.

So as I mentally prepared myself to load up the Jeep with 280 items headed to Goodwill, I began to delve into the chapter in “7” on possessions.

Bad idea.

Before she even started into the daily account of her sacrifices, she said this,

“Donating to Goodwill is fine, but I read the following quote three years ago, and it changed my life:

‘I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor. . . . I long for the Calcutta slums to meet the Chicago suburbs, for lepers to meet landowners and for each to see God’s image in the other. . . . I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.’ (Thank you, Shane Claiborne, for messing me up.)”

So God is challenging me. Rather than just purging my closets and basements and dumping them anonymously at Goodwill’s donation dumpster, to seek out organizations who do great work, but need specific items. They are commonly posted on their websites under “wish lists.” My goal is to find out about the organizations helping the poor, to visit them, to see how I can be a part of what God is doing, to make them a priority on my prayer list, and to take them at least seven items on their wish list.  280 items that are needed.

We’ll see how this goes.

Rather than focusing on writing about what I’m giving, I’m going to highlight here what each organization is giving to this community, and around the world. Most are faith-based, some are not. All are serving the poor. I’m already humbled by how many organizations do great work based out of Middle Tennessee. I’m also amazed at how much need each of them has.

If you’re local and would like to join the purge-a-thon, I’m sure we could bless the socks off of a lot of great people. But in reality, this isn’t about a crusade to gather supplies. My focus is drawing nearer to the heart of God, by drawing nearer to those He cares for: the poor, the widows, the outcasts, the orphans.

It’s probably a good thing Lent snuck up on me this year, so I wouldn’t think myself out of this!