There is 'Room at the Inn'

Snow continues to melt in Catawba County.

But every night, as the sun sinks down and the cold sets in, there are people who have nowhere to go.

These homeless men and women face potentially life-threatening temperatures when they spend the night exposed to the elements, and that's a problem one Newton church won't let continue.

First Presbyterian Church, on North Main Avenue, offers its Room at the Inn program for people who don't have a warm, safe place to spend the night.

On nights where temperatures are 25 degrees and below, the church opens its doors to the needy, inviting them in for a meal, fellowship and a warm bed.

"It breaks your heart to think of someone sleeping outside," said the Rev. Dr. Mark Watson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and a volunteer at Room at the Inn.

Wednesday night saw the largest number of homeless people in the Room at the Inn's two-winter history, with 12 people taking advantage of the program's services.

"It's very rewarding to see the people when they come in," said Dr. Sonny Sowers, who helps coordinate and organize the project. "They're so polite and appreciative. It's good to see the church being involved and working together to pull something off."

Room at the Inn was open at least 10 times this winter, and Watson anticipates that number will continue to increase as the season progresses. Thursday's low temperature was forecasted at 16 degrees. By Thursday afternoon, a banner in the church's front yard announced that Room at the Inn was open Thursday night.

Room at the Inn operates in three shifts, with at least two volunteers present for each shift.

The first shift, from 7-10 p.m., provides food for patrons. Watson said volunteers try to provide an easy, hot meal, such as soup, whenever possible. The church provides newspapers, a TV with a DVD player and a shower for patrons during that time.

The Corner Table soup kitchen in Newton, which is closed at night, also gives food for the project.

Lights are out at 10 p.m., but most participants choose to go to sleep earlier than that. From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., another shift of volunteers comes to the church to spend the night. The church has air mattresses, blankets, pillows and cots, which provide all patrons with a warm, comfortable bed.

The final shift starts at 6 a.m. with breakfast. Everyone who stayed overnight at the church receives breakfast, and volunteers stay to assist with cleanup.

This process is repeated night after night as the temperature allows, but volunteers couldn't do it without help.

Room at the Inn operates on an emergency basis only, which makes it easier for the church to handle its patrons and the codes associated with operating the program.

Watson and other volunteers enlisted the help of Newton's police and fire departments, as well as Mayor Robert Mullinax, to help with the project and connect homeless people with services provided by the church.

"They're looking out for us," Watson said. "We know that they're there if we need them."

Although volunteers never reported any problems with patrons, Watson said it's comforting to know that emergency personnel are a few blocks away in case an unforeseen situation arises.

The city's departments, in turn, bring homeless people they find on the streets to Room at the Inn.

"There's definitely a need here," Watson said. "We wanted to do something that served a need in the community."

This is the second winter for First Presbyterian's Room at the Inn program. The church started the program after hearing how one of its members was previously homeless. That member is now serving others during Room at the Inn.

"It's one of those things where a face was put to the problem," Watson said.

Sowers agreed.

"There is such a need in the community," he said. "We want people to know about it."

This week's winter weather compounded the need for shelter in Catawba County. The weather also made it more difficult for volunteers to coordinate the services. Sowers said he relied on e-mail to stay in contact with volunteers, and with their help, the program continued when it was needed the most.

But with the increasing number of patrons, First Presbyterian and its team of about 30 volunteers can't do the work alone.

The church is enlisting the help of area churches and volunteers for manpower and donations.

First Presbyterian will hold an information session about Room at the Inn on Jan. 22 at 9 a.m. in the church's fellowship hall. Anyone interested in volunteering or donating to Room at the Inn is encouraged to attend.

"We've really been made aware of the problem (of homelessness), and that makes it real," Watson said. "Think all those things combined made people want to help out. ... We really think that this is something, as a community, that we can tackle."