With temperatures dipping into the 20s each night this week until Friday, local homeless persons are finding a warm refuge through the Room in the Inn program at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy.
It got under way at the church fellowship hall on Jan. 1 as a way to provide a temporary overnight shelter to persons lacking a home or heated place to sleep during the coldest months of the year.
“Things are going well,” said Nancy Dixon, a key organizer of the program through another charitable effort with which she is involved: the Surry Medical Ministries free clinic.
First Presbyterian Church is partnering with the clinic, Mount Airy Police Department, Northern Regional Hospital, the Maranatha Homeless Outreach ministry and other congregations in offering a first-of-its-kind service locally.
Room in the Inn is patterned after a program started in Nashville, Tennessee, which has spread elsewhere and operates under a basic goal of keeping homeless people from freezing on cold winter nights.
“We had two people the first night, and we were glad to have them,” Dixon added Monday of the turnout on Jan. 1. “I’m sure those people were glad to be there.”
While Mount Airy has a homeless shelter, the Shepherd’s House, the capacity there is limited — until a major expansion now in the works is realized — and it also does not serve single men.
Under the Room in the Inn program, those seeking the overnight shelter can be picked up at the Citgo station on the corner of Pine and South streets, taken to the church and returned to the pickup point the next morning.
Its format includes issuing a cot or floor mat, blanket and pillow, along with providing meals. “Sometimes its refrigerated leftovers and everybody’s cool with that,” Dixon said.
The temporary shelter is now housing about six or seven people each evening.
“We will run every night,” Dixon said of the schedule at the church fellowship hall which extends through January and February and possibly will into March, due to a long-range forecast of bad weather then. Organizers plan to make a final decision on this at some point.
“I’ve spent a lot of nights there,” Dixon said of an effort that involves members of various churches volunteering to man the facility.
“We’ve had such an amazing response.”
Dixon said the goal has been to provide shelter recipients with warmth and hospitality in a safe setting. “It’s a family atmosphere.”
Under the Room in the Inn rules, there is a zero-tolerance policy regarding violence, alcohol and illegal drugs, with city police regularly monitoring shelter activity.
Upon being screened for entry, guests place all their possessions, including bags and extra clothing, into a locked tub and medication and cigarettes in a numbered zip-lock bag. No access is granted to those items except for one smoke break.
Doors at the fellowship hall close at 7 p.m., and if a guest wants to leave, he or she may not re-enter the shelter.
“Many of them are just trying to get on their feet,” Dixon said of the clientele served so far.
She pointed out that it is difficult to get a job when one doesn’t even have an address, and the homeless are unable to find their own places to stay without working. Dixon says the program at the church is a way to meet basic survival needs of shelter recipients so they can move up from there.
Female clients seeking the shelter typically are housed for a night or two, then hopefully referred to the Shepherd’s House where their employment and other needs can be better met.
Dixon says the main problem faced so far is volunteers and other supporters duplicating efforts, such as providing clothing or food and maybe overlooking some other need.
“I think at first we had to learn how to coordinate.”
But organizers say the temporary shelter has been a smooth operation overall.
“It’s something we’ll continue to do,” Dixon said.