It's one of those blistering-hot days in late summer, when there's no escape from the sun's punishing rays. For most of us, a simple flip of an air-conditioning switch and a few minutes patience cool us off in our cars on our way around town, attending to our busy lives before returning to the comfort of our homes.
Not everyone is so lucky, though. A little before 1 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, a group of hot, thirsty men and women with no place to call home begin lining up outside a discreetly marked building at 146 Jefferson. Inside, the staff and volunteers for the Hospitality Hub prepare for the work ahead of them when the doors open.
The Hospitality Hub isn't a homeless shelter, nor is it a soup kitchen. It is, however, the best chance for down-on-their-luck locals to take the first step to getting away from a life on the streets.
The idea for the Hub began a little over a year ago with a meeting between downtown church leaders Reverend Andy MacBeth of Calvary Episcopal, and Ellen Roberds of First Presbyterian. The two met to see how many of the churches downtown — those who are on the front lines of the homeless population in Memphis — could better serve those in need by combining the resources provided by their churches. Next, other neighboring churches, 14 in all, plus congregations associated with each denomination around the city, sprang into action. Moriah Lee and Rachel Wade were tapped to be co-directors of the facility, and the two began recruiting volunteers to carry out the Hub's mission: To provide a spiritual sanctuary for the homeless, especially the recently homeless. The Hospitality Hub opened its doors this May.
But how does a grassroots organization like the Hospitality Hub begin to tackle this ever-increasing problem? It all starts, says Lee, with a simple cup of coffee and a listening ear. "This Hub is the best way to get the word out to those who don't know about us, for us to direct people to the churches around here that offer what we don't, and to keep track of those who may be abusing the services offered by these churches," explains Lee.
Here's how it works. Each visitor to the Hub signs in with a staff member at a reception area. From there, he or she is directed to a volunteer who can begin getting the proper paperwork or calls made, depending on the need. Most visitors are in need of an ID or birth certificate — Tennessee employers usually require one or the other, as do homeless shelters. If the client has an addiction, he or she is directed toward a program, church-related or otherwise, but there is a strict rule about sobriety within the Hub. They are happy to help treat an addiction, but anyone entering the facility while under the influence of any drug will not be served.
Computers with Internet access are available, as are telephones. Lockers at the Hub are "rented" monthly by those who have nowhere to store whatever belongings they may have, and the client's mail can also be sent to the Jefferson address. From there, volunteers begin helping those without the essentials, such as government identification, Social Security numbers, and any other necessary documentation to get visitors back on the road to employment, and, hopefully, into a stable home environment.
"Most of the people who walk through our doors are here because of bad choices," explains Lee. "A huge misconception is that they got into this situation because of a drug or alcohol addiction, and of course, we do see that as well. But for the most part, we hear that clients moved here for a boyfriend or girlfriend, then the relationship went sour and they were kicked out of the relationship and the home. Or sometimes a client is the victim of a string of bad luck, such as illness that creates huge medical bills or simply losing a job. So many of us are just a paycheck away from disaster, and without the support of friends or family, these people go from working, happy people to homeless and hopeless in a matter of weeks."
Lee says that a typical day consists of around 40 visitors, some new, some coming back to see if their requested documents have made their way to the Hub. Others simply come in, get a cup of coffee, and seek relief from the streets.
"We've tried to make this place homey, not institutional, though we still have a ways to go. We'd like to replace the tables and metal chairs with couches and finish the private consultation areas where people can get counseling one-on-one," explains Lee, gesturing around the room, which contains an aquarium, seating areas, and a bookshelf with titles ranging from Memoirs of a Geisha to The Rule of Four . There's also a table full of other reading materials, with pamphlets on various health issues as well as copies of popular magazines such as National Geographic, Men's Health , and Memphis . In a far corner of the room stands a metal file cabinet, adorned with the magnetic "create-your-own-phrase" words so often seen on refrigerators. On it, someone has created a simple, three-word statement: Work for comfort. No one knows whether it was a guest or a volunteer who put those words together, but it's a concept that seems fitting for both.
When it comes down to it, we're here trying to restore people's dignity," says Lee. "This is a place where people can start over."
The hospitality hub is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, call 522-1808