About 200 people line up outside the old train depot in Charlotte, N.C. There’s music, laughter and conversation. Some sit quietly, the thoughts of not having a home weighing heavily. Others celebrate the warm, safe place to sleep and the home-cooked meals that are a bus ride away.
Children do their homework on the sidewalk. A woman rolls her bag down the hill from her car. Two men debate their NCAA tournament brackets.
At the center of it all — answering questions, reassuring, organizing, smiling and, above all, welcoming — is Matt Daniels ’98, innkeeper at Room In The Inn (RITI), a program of Urban Ministry Center (UMC).
“We match people who are homeless with different organizations that shelter them for the night,” says Daniels, referring to the Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, nonprofit organizations, YMCAs and even schools that come to the UMC late each afternoon from December through March to welcome and provide comfort to their “neighbors.” In total, these organizations provide about 18,000 beds on a rotating basis. “So many people have taken on this different way of sheltering people during the winter.”
RITI offers short-term housing for people who are transitionally or chronically homeless. They’ve lost a job or have a job but can’t afford housing. They’ve broken up with a spouse and don’t have other family and friends as a backup. They’re mentally ill. During the season, Daniels will work to house about 1,500 individuals.
“Chronic homelessness is on the decline, but transitional homelessness is on the rise because of the market,” says Daniels. “As a city we found that the cost is about $40,000 per year to support someone who’s homeless and living on the streets.” Part of the reason for the price tag is the high cost of emergency room services for minor ailments and expenses associated with jail time for victimless crimes, such as loitering. “At Room In The Inn, the cost is closer to $14,000 per year. We’re less expensive, and the people who we house are healthier because we connect them to other social services.”
The UMC started as a soup kitchen in downtown Charlotte. With the banking boom, the business community bought land nearby and built a facility. Now the center includes counseling services, a nurse, showers and a laundry. The center serves as a post office each day to more than 1,000 people who lack stable housing.
“You can’t deliver a disability check to the third bridge on the right,” says Daniels. “We make sure checks get into the right hands.”
Daniels, a computer science major who served as president of both Campus Union and Kappa Sigma fraternity while at Wofford, went to work after graduation for Milliken & Co. He then worked in benefits administration for several companies. When he and his family moved to Charlotte, they joined Myers Park United Methodist Church and began volunteering for UMC. That’s where he found his passion.
“This job speaks to my compassionate, quirky, nerdy side. It’s been an interesting and cool fit.” Daniels brings a strategic thinking and technical expertise to the position that’s uncommon. He’s added an ID card system that also is used to identify people who need special accommodations for their evening stays. He rerouted the entrance and exits and has streamlined the registration and departure system. He’s now working on a short documentary about the program to show at potential housing sites so they better understand how RITI works.
“Matt has been like a breath of fresh air for this program,” says Patsy Sheppard, who, along with her husband, Ron, works as a volunteer during registration and check-in. “He’s easy to talk to. He listens. He’s so tech savvy. He’s a calming force. It can be chaotic here, but he doesn’t get rattled. It’s not just a job for him; it’s a ministry — a passion — and you can tell it. He’s living out his faith.”
According to Daniels, Charlotte provides several shelters for the homeless, but RITI is the only one committed to keeping families together and helping them work through their issues so they can have more stable lives. Last year 25 new organizations signed on to participate as night-by-night hosts. Some offer shelter once a month, others once a week.
“The irony is that there’s not enough room in the inn,” says Daniels, who is always working to connect more organizations to the area’s homeless population. “It’s all about hospitality, proving that homelessness isn’t synonymous with hopelessness and helping people rediscover their dignity and humanity.”
by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89