COLUMBIA — Homeless shelters like Room at the Inn are especially needed this time of year, and volunteers and staff find a way to provide much needed services and a warm place to stay during bitterly cold nights.
The interfaith church effort opened its overnight service to homeless guests on Jan. 1, and so far the lowest turnout has been 23 people, said Rev. Larry Williams of the Missouri United Methodist Church, one of five participating churches.
The recent blast of winter weather played an active role in fueling the need for overnight shelters, creating a dangerously cold environment for those left outside, said Williams, who acknowledged the heightened concern to get people inside.
One recent night, Room at the Inn accepted 38 people, three more than its capacity, said Janet Schisser, the program coordinator. Later, five guests pooled their money to get a hotel room, but they were back on Sunday.
"Our mission is to provide a warm and safe place to sleep," she said, and Room at the Inn tries to be flexible about how many people it can accommodate.
On the bright side, cold weather encourages more people to donate, Schisser continued. It makes people more aware of homeless people's needs.
Check-in time for guests is 6:30 p.m. and check-out is 7 a.m. Although doors are locked at 8 p.m., there is a supervised smoking break at 9:15 p.m. Guests are provided a cot and linens, food, coffee and hot chocolate.
In order to meet demand, Room at the Inn sends out donation requests to the host congregations. Columbia residents can also donate food and materials at the Central Missouri Community Action at 807 N. Providence Road near Business Loop 70.
Five churches currently participate in the Room at the Inn program: Broadway Christian Church, Calvary Episcopal Church, Missouri United Methodist Church, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church and Community United Methodist Church.
The churches take turns offering their services, ranging from five days to two weeks.
When asked whether his congregation was prepared for its turn running the shelter, Williams said, "We're ready."
Volunteers do not have to be church members to volunteer at the shelters, Williams said. Information about shift requirements and open slots can be found at www.moumc.org/rati. Daytime volunteers must be 18 years old, and overnight volunteers must be 25.
In 2013, there were about 350 volunteers from 10 or more congregations and other groups, Schisser said.
Besides a two-week stint as host, Missouri United Methodist also provides transportation to the other participating churches from Loaves of Fishes — a warming shelter at the Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church, where dinner is served.
Room at the Inn doesn't ask questions of its guests, Schisser said. It is a "damp shelter," meaning that if guests arrives intoxicated, they can still be accommodated, so long as they can abide by the shelter's rules.
Although Room at the Inn cannot accommodate families with children, it helps find them other arrangements, offering referrals to Harbor House, the Salvation Army shelter on North Ash Street off of Paris Road.
Harbor House took in 13 people last week, on top of 61 residential spaces, said Cindy Chapman, who works for the shelter. It also tries to address the underlying issues that cause homelessness.
"People are doomed to repeat cycles of homelessness if they can't work in and through the system," she said.
Harbor House has six dedicated rooms for families, as well as male and female dorms. The staff teaches life skills, such as job training, nutrition and fiscal management. But one of the most basic services is three square meals.
"You can't have people with food insecurity not knowing where their next meal will be coming from. You have to feed the people in order to stabilize them," she said.
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