In its former life as a high-school seminary chapel, the Community Room of the Catholic Charities Center in Jefferson City resonated with hymns of the folk variety.
“We will work with each other. We will work side-by-side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
The hymn takes flesh every night as an interchurch band of volunteers provides a bed, two hot meals and a safe place to sleep for people who would otherwise spend the night in the cold.
It is Jefferson City Room at the Inn (JCRATI), now in its second winter of existence.
JCRATI is an overnight, low-barrier, emergency shelter that operates from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night in January and February, accommodating up to 15 adult guests.
It is community supported and completely staffed by volunteers.
Catholic Charities provides the space, free of charge.
“The shelter opened Jan. 1, and we’ve seen a steadily increasing number of guests coming to stay with us each night,” noted Shelly Hittner, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City, who is one of the regular volunteers.
Three shifts of three volunteers apiece set up the shelter each night, feed and look after the guests, and clean up and transform the room back into a workspace in the morning.
“We need nine volunteers every day to make sure the shelter opens,” said Deacon Ric Telthorst, who assists the pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City.
Additional volunteers provide the meals — either home-cooked or take-out.
Each shift includes a lead volunteer who has experience carrying out the responsibilities for that shift.
Deacon Telthorst and his wife, Mary, president of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference, are among the regular volunteers from a handful of local congregations.
Buses belonging to local congregations pick up guests for the shelter at the public library in downtown Jefferson City and return them each morning.
Deacon Telthorst referred to it as a model of Christian collaboration.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to see the Baptist Church bus and United Methodist Church bus arrive at the Catholic Charities Center,” he stated. “It’s such a visible show of unity within our diversity of faith.”
He noted that several of the regular volunteers take on multiple shifts each week in order to keep the shelter going.
“Every day is kind of an adventure,” he said. “We could really use more people.”
Help always needed
The opening shift arrives at 6 p.m. to set up the beds, organize the paperwork, welcome the guests, place their belongings in safe storage and serve dinner.
The lights go out at 10 p.m.
The next shift arrives at 11 and stays the night.
“Helping 14 or 15 people get settled and take care of them and keep a watchful eye out for them takes a certain amount of time and energy,” Deacon Telthorst noted.
The overnight crew also works on laundry and other tasks.
The morning shift arrives at 5 a.m., serves breakfast, checks the guests out and cleans the facility.
“We have to recreate the space every night, because Catholic Charities needs the room as part of doing their job every day,” Deacon Telthorst noted. “We have to clean up, vacuum and mop the floor so it’s ready for the staff when they come in.”
The most challenging slots to fill are on the overnight shift.
“It would help a lot if there were more people to spread out the responsibilities,” the deacon said.
Since the shelter welcomes men and women guests, it’s good to have a mix of men and women volunteers.
Moments of encounter
The Jefferson City Homeless Task Force, with representatives from local congregations, organizations and service agencies, created JCRATI based on many aspects of the successful Room at the Inn operation in Columbia.
It’s an opportunity to stop and recognize people.
Deacon Telthorst pointed out that when passing by individuals on a street or alley, “you see them but you don’t really know them.”
“These guests — we invite them in, and you do get to know them over time,” he said. “They have a name, and we get to know their name.”
They also have stories they’re often willing to share with people they trust.
“So there have been some opportunities for really deep discussions and conversations,” he said.
“Not that we’re trying to solve all their problems,” he noted, “but we certainly are someone to talk to and lean on and try to understand what they’re going through.”
Organizers hope eventually to find a permanent JCRATI location that’s closer to downtown Jefferson City, where many of the clients spend their days.
Until then, Catholic Charities is home.
The Jefferson City Room at the Inn Facebook page is the primary point of contact for volunteers.
It includes a link to JCRATI’s SignUpGenius page, which includes descriptions of shifts, dates/times, links to the handbook, and other resources.
The Facebook page also includes an ongoing list of needed items for people to donate.
There are many ways to help.
Deacon Telthorst pointed to the recent donations of a large quantity of socks knitted by a retired gentleman, and a box of wool hats made by residents of the Moberly Correctional Center.
Catholic Charities recently donated personal hygiene packs for the guests’ use.
“Those types of things are always welcome,” he said.
The operation also needs prayers — “especially for the homeless individuals who face challenges every day just to stay warm, stay safe and stay fed.”
“They have to concern themselves with things that you and I take for granted,” Deacon Telthorst said.
Visit the Jefferson City Room at the Inn Facebook page for information, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.