Who's Sleeping In Your Sunday School Room?

Churches provide temporary homes for the homeless

By Annette Bender

KINGSPORT, Tenn. – It's 4:30 p.m., and 14-year-old Allen and his two younger sisters have returned from school. The smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen. Allen's grandmother is full of smiles and hugs. The kids dump their backpacks and go out to shoot hoops in the spring sunshine.

But Allen and his family are not home, and his grandmother did not make the lasagna for dinner. This week, Allen's family lives at Glen Alpine United Methodist Church. Their hosts are the church members.

Glen Alpine is one of 39 Kingsport churches forming an Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). Through the national program, which also has networks in Johnson City and Chattanooga, homeless families can find temporary places to stay in church buildings. They also receive TLC from congregations who sign up to cook meals, pack lunches, help with homework – and even throw surprise birthday parties, when the occasion warrants.

John Watson, a member of Gray UMC in the Johnson City District, is director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Kingsport. A former alcohol-abuse counselor, he was hired by an ecumenical steering committee about two months before Kingsport's IHN opened in January 2001.

"There was something that drew me to this job," Watson says. "I liked the thought of all denominations working together to accomplish the same goal – because that's what Christianity is all about. We're all out for the same goal." Of the 39 participating churches, 12 actually host families in their buildings – up to 14 guests at a time. Supporting congregations provide additional volunteers and financial support toward IHN's $70,000 annual budget.

According to a schedule arranged by Watson, homeless families live in a church for a week at a time before IHN moves them to the care of another congregation. Each church has its assets, but Glen Alpine Church is an especially desirable place to live, Allen's family says. Glen Alpine has showers.

"See?" says Allen's grandmother, demonstrating the short distance between the showers and the Sunday school room doubling as her bedroom. Like her grandchildren, Rose, age 50, seem to take pains to avoid complaining. "It's nice to be able to take our showers here before we go over to the day center."

IHN families spend evenings in the churches, but when they're not in school or working, they spend their days at the Day Center in Hufford House. Rented to IHN by First Presbyterian Church for $1 annually, Hufford House is centrally located near Church Circle. Besides Watson's office, the house contains a child-care center, kitchen, showers, storage space, and a home base for job and housing searches.

The goal, after all, is to help these families find jobs and homes, says Watson.

"The average stay is 29 days. We try to get the families in and out as soon as possible because most of them don't want to stay any longer. They want to be independent."

For instance, Rose and her husband, David, are working with Watson to attain subsidized housing. The couple became homeless when they returned to Kingsport after temporarily relocating to Winchester, Va., to help Rose's ailing mother. David's job as a wrecker driver was no longer available and the family depleted their funds while living in a motel. With three children to support (it's not clear what happened to the mother), Rose and David were quick to accept when IHN offered its services. David now has a job at a car wash.

Watson finds homeless families through social service agencies and through flyers he leaves at bus stations and Laundromats. In 2001, his organization served 79 individuals representing 24 families: 33 adults and 46 children. Thirty-three of the children were under age five.

"We provide a service that nobody else does," he says. "In shelters, there are women's dorms and men's dorms. We help the family stay together as a unit." Families must include children or expectant mothers to be IHN-eligible. Watson screens potential guests for substance abuse or psychiatric problems and checks police reports.

In a way, living in a different church every week might seem like an adventure, especially to a young person. The classrooms serving as bedrooms have been made to look almost homey

Serving the Homeless

  • Kingsport District congregations hosting IHN families on their premises include Glen Alpine, Colonial Heights, Mountain View, and St. Luke.
  • Kingsport churches providing additional volunteers and funding include Cassidy, Crossroads, First Broad Street, Kendricks Creek, Kingsley, Mafair, Salem, St. Matthew, Okolona, and Morrison Chapel.
  • Holston churches also participate in Interfaith Hospitality Networks in Chattanooga (Burks, East Ridge, First-Centenary, Hixon, Red Bank, St. Marks, St. John, Signal Crest, Wesley Memorial, White Oak) and Johnson City (First Johnson City, Gray, Wesley Memorial, Munsey Memorial, Piney Flats, East Pine Grove Park, Fairhaven).
  • The director of the Chattanooga network is Mary Ellen Galloway (423-756-3891). Johnson City's director is Brian Rosecrance (423-929-9967). Kingsport's director is John Watson (423-246-6500).
  • Nationally, IHN has 99 networks in 28 states and is exploring a new network in Oak Ridge. Visit www.nihn.org for info.

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