On a Saturday night at Lipscomb University—while their friends were getting ready for parties or going to the movies—eight students were preparing for a different kind of night. They were preparing to host 14 Room In The Inn participants for overnight shelter.
In the Student Activity Center, they pulled air mattresses from trash bins and inflated them on the gym floor. Racquetball courts were converted into temporary bedrooms. On the other end of the gym, tables were set up for a meal, and a long counter held apples, oranges, crackers, and other basics for guests to make a sack lunch.
Oh, and the entire operation is run by students. There’s not a person over 22 in sight.
So, what makes a group of students decide to give up nine of their Saturday nights to shelter people experiencing homelessness?
Creating a Place to Belong
Co-coordinators Sarah Williams (a senior entrepreneurship major) and Brianna Young (a senior internet and social media marketing major) said that creating a place of belonging is personal and important to them.
“Both of us have felt like we don’t belong somewhere before and how much that hurts,” Young said. “If I can make a connection with somebody and make them feel at peace, and known, and welcomed, and calm that means a lot to me.”
“People that live on the streets don’t get a lot of people who look them in the eyes, or listen to their stories, or listen to them at all,” Williams said. “I can’t do anything for them. But I can listen to them.”
But, as they realized, they could do something for them. They could bring people out of the cold. The answer was all around them.
“We have all these resources here on this campus that are not being used,” Williams said. “It’s already just sitting here. Why not take advantage of that opportunity?”
Room In The Inn—Student-Style!
But pulling off a shelter for people experiencing homelessness on a university campus is no breeze—especially for a couple of students. Williams and Young said there’s a laundry list of university staff who have to be notified and give permission. They put together a detailed budget to get funding. Then, there’s the feat of wrangling other student volunteers—to set up, to serve meals, to drive—Saturday after Saturday.
All on top of a full class schedule, internships, part-time jobs, and a semblance of a social life. Whew!
“In some ways, this has morphed into our social life,” Williams joked. “We just pull in all our friends and we’re like, ‘Hey, there’s free dinner. Come hang out with us.’”
They said coordinating the shelter is kind of like running a small business, and they’ve learned how to make the best of it. They’ve put a lot of work into promotions and making people aware of the issue of homelessness. And they’ve even collaborated with the university on its service and learning together (SALT) curriculum, where students can get class credit for volunteering. After four seasons with Room In The Inn, it’s slowly becoming part of Lipscomb life.
But with an unsteady flow of student volunteers, Williams and Young said they get a lot of students who are interacting with people experiencing homelessness for the very first time.
Williams said they tell newcomers, “It’s going to be uncomfortable, but you’re just going to have to lean into the uncomfortableness to begin with. And when you get down to it, it’s us. It’s not us and them. It’s we—together.”
“[Volunteers] would express later that they felt really nervous,” Young said, ‘but, like, ‘How fun and exciting! I was actually going to talk to them!’”
And this group has a lot of fun.
They recalled nights of Jenga games, dancing, and even a late-night karaoke session that even outlasted the college students.
“‘Like, guys, I have to go to bed,’” Williams remembered telling the guests.
Their Power of One Moment
They said while they wish they could do more—host more nights, get more student involvement—they realize that connecting with people isn’t a numbers game.
“Your goal for this is to help one person for one night, one time, one meal, one conversation,” Williams said. “It’s, like, to actually provide this quality care and quality experience for people.”
Young agreed: “If we just provide and make a difference in one person, I think that should be enough. All of our efforts should go to that.”
Lipscomb University is just one of 200 Room In The Inn congregations that host shelter for people experiencing homelessness throughout the winter. Together, our congregations provided a total of more than 29,000 beds for Nashville’s homeless community during the 2018-19 season.
If your congregation would like information on hosting participants for shelter, please click here.