On Wednesdays in November and March, Room In The Inn transforms its second floor to host up to 30 of Nashville’s *homeless young adults for shelter. Classroom tables are replaced with mattresses. One large classroom becomes a dining room, with tables covered in vinyl tablecloths. An Xbox is rolled into the hall for video games.
And when the youth step off the elevator, Roy Carter and Vernie Felder are there to welcome them. Their partnership is a unique one. Roy is a Room In The Inn staff member. Vernie is a former homeless participant, turned Room In The Inn apartment resident. And he’s the second resident to volunteer with the youth shelter, preceded by Carl Lillard, who passed away last May.
Together, they create a hospitable environment where Nashville’s homeless youth can feel safe and respected. They discuss their legacy of staff and participants working together to make youth experiencing homelessness feel welcome.
Meet Roy, Vernie—and Carl
Roy has spent much of his life working with youth, coaching high school and college baseball at Vanderbilt University, and even working in pro baseball for many years. At the age of 40, he went to graduate seminary and became a Presbyterian pastor, where he first started hosting winter shelter for Room In The Inn.
After retiring from 18 years of pastoring, Roy said a conversation with Charlie Strobel on recruiting congregations to host shelter turned into a new job.
“Charlie said, ‘Why don’t you come on board and do that?’ So, I thought I was retired. But I talked myself into another job.”
When Room In The Inn began hosting youth shelter in 2016, Roy seemed like a perfect fit for an overnight staff member. But he would need help. So, Room In The Inn recruited Carl Lillard, a participant living in an RITI transitional house at the time.
“Carl Lee was my partner, and he was great,” Roy said. “He had been a homeless guy one time himself. He knew firsthand what that was all about. And so, we made a really good team. That first year, we stayed every Wednesday night, all night.”
The two of them would set up mattresses, serve the evening meal, and then spend the rest of the night talking with the youth—and each other. They became fast friends.
“We talked all night long,” Roy said. “We became really, really close friends.”
Vernie started using services at Room In The Inn in 2016. In April 2017, he became eligible to move into Room In The Inn’s on-site apartments, where he and Carl became close friends, too. So, when Carl passed away in May 2018, Room In The Inn knew exactly who to ask to help with youth shelter.
“I used to watch Carl Lee,” Vernie said. “I’ve never seen Carl Lee move that fast, which told me he really liked what he was doing.”
Roy approved of his new partner.
“Vernie’s been great,” he said. “Vernie’s picked up the slack, and he’s been a good partner. He’s been a good friend. Nobody’s going to replace Carl Lee, but he just needs to be Vernie.”
Youth shelter is “leadership intensive and relationship intensive”
Roy agreed that the way to form relationships with the youth is by asking questions about their lives—and truly caring about the answers.
Many come from households where drugs and violence were common. Some had parents that were in and out of the prison systems. Others were foster kids who had aged out of the system. Some identified as LGBTQ and were rejected by their families simply for being themselves.
“You know, if people knew some of the burdens that some of these kids are carrying, people would have a lot more respect for how they’re trying to carry those burdens,” Roy said. “I would ask, ‘How did you get to Nashville?’ not ‘How’d you get into homelessness?’”
He said working with the youth was “leadership intensive and relationship intensive.” He said the youth were often faced with a new crisis every week—a breakup or a lost job—and he did his best to listen and help them deal with difficult situations.
Vernie said as someone who formerly experienced homelessness, he understands their challenges firsthand.
“I heard them last week say something that really hurt me,” he said. “It touched me, though. One of them got real mad, real mad. He hit the table hard. It was around Thanksgiving time. He said, ‘Everybody’s with their family having turkey, all that type of stuff, and we’re sitting here eating cereal.’
“I told him, ‘You’re better off now than you were before. Don’t worry about it.’”
Roy said the margin for error for a homeless youth is vast: “Poverty leaves you very little room for mistakes.”
He said despite the challenges, many of the youth are working hard to change their lives. He recalled a couple of college students who would spend the entire night studying. They even asked for an earlier wake-up call so they could cram for an early test. Best of all, he encountered a youth in downtown Nashville that had finally obtained housing.
Roy and Vernie both agreed that providing something as basic as shelter for the youth blesses them in return.
“You really feel closer to God when you’re interacting with the least of these because I think that’s where He’s hanging out,” Roy said.
“God is what takes all these people here, these homeless, and gives them a place to wash, to eat, to even have a little clothes, because this way they have something they can say they have for themselves,” Vernie said. “Up here on the fifth floor, I’m blessed. So, I love seeing them blessed.”
Where youth shelter grows from here
Vernie takes pride in the task he’s inherited from Carl, and he always keeps Carl close to his heart.
After Carl passed away, Vernie said he was brought a spider plant from Carl’s apartment. Carl had let the plant grow wild and long, draping onto the floor. Vernie hasn’t cut a single vine. He nailed it to a high point on his wall and left it to wind and coil as Carl intended. In front of that plant, Vernie keeps a photo of Carl and Roy.
And just as that plant grows, Vernie is helping Room In The Inn’s youth shelter grow, too.