The Interfaith Hospitality Network is a coordinated effort by numerous Knoxville churches to provide shelter and refuge for several homeless families. Each week, one church hosts the families who sleep, eat breakfast and dinner, bathe and recreate in each facility. Various members of the church volunteer to assist in driving adults to and from work, assisting with job placement, watching and playing with their kids, preparing meals and generally showing support and kindness to those in need.
This week is our church's week, and last night I volunteered to spend the evening and all night with the group. There were three families who are our guests this week: a single mom and her middle-school daughter, a mom and dad with a 2-yr-old and another mom and dad with four kids, ranging from 5 to about 12.
Several rooms in the church building were set aside for sleeping areas - each family got their own private room, as well as each of the overnight hosts. There was also a recreation area with a TV for movie-watching, a foosball table and air hockey plus several games and puzzles for the kids, plus a dining area and a kitchen and they spent a lot of time in the gym and on the playground.
The aim of the program is not just to get people off the streets, but to provide safe haven for the families while the parents either work their jobs or look for work. In doing so, they are able to save up enough money to begin the process of finding housing for themselves and integrate back into society.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started - one of my worst failings is an inherent mistrust of the homeless. As with most prejudices the best way to overcome them is to tackle them head on, which I did. I found the kids mostly happy, smiling, ready for fun - like any kid might be. They wanted to play, they wanted to talk, they wanted attention - again, like any kid. The parents, I noticed, were mostly fairly quiet and humble...whether this was due to their general nature or the result of living off the kindness of strangers, I'm not sure, but they were pretty easy to get along with.
Two of the adults worked locally and didn't get off work till late, so I didn't get to know them as well. I'm scheduled to go back on Saturday for another (short) evening with them, and then I have a show afterward.
A lot of people in the world depend on the kindness of strangers to give them a hand, to get a boost or encouragement in times of need. It's interesting that it goes both ways - these folks were strangers to us, but are now are friends. Their kindness shines through in their dignity as much as (hopefully) ours does to them. We are truly all in this world together.