UNA students volunteer for local shelter

Kim Dutton refills the coffee pots at Room in the Inn Shoals. The shelter provides services during the winter months for the homeless community in the Shoals area.

by Life Editor Melissa Parker

Students and Shoals community members are finding new ways to care for and support those in the area who cannot support themselves.

Now in its second season, Room in the Inn Shoals is a shelter supported by partnerships with local organizations to ensure the homeless have a warm place to sleep through the winter months.

Senior Caroline Bobo, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, one of the organization’s first church partnerships, said she helps with the program at her church and sees it working.

“When Dr. (Beth) Garfrerick said my campaigns class needed a client to do some PR work for, Room in the Inn Shoals immediately popped into my head,” Bobo said.

The Public Relations campaigns class revamped the organization’s website and approached UNA’s Film Club about making an informative video to share with others.

Senior Kahri Bolden said he was part of the group responsible for making the video.

Bolden said they contacted fellow UNA student Hunter Nicholson about shooting the video and lined up interviews for it.

Nicholson, a senior, said he knew he wanted to help after meeting Manchester.

Nicholson asked other members of the Film Club to join him.

“I’ve never really talked to anyone that was homeless,” he said. “Their life isn’t what we think it is. A lot of them have jobs, but they have jobs that don’t provide them enough money to live.”

Bolden said getting the message out about Room in the Inn and the homeless population is important.

Room in the Inn Shoals began in January 2015 after friends Manchester and Beth Howard witnessed homelessness in the Shoals.

Howard was helping some of the homeless she saw near her church in Florence, and Manchester was helping a young man she stumbled across in Seven Points.

Each January, the federal government requires a count, the Point-in-Time count, of the homeless population across the country, she said. In January 2015 there were 246 homeless people in Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Winston and Marion counties combined.

Last year, one guest, a UNA student, told Manchester many students were on the verge of homelessness, she said. After paying tuition, many of them could not meet housing costs.

“That was eye-opening to me in a sense that trying to juggle college while being homeless would be really hard,” she said. “It prompted to me to do a lot of research and see that it’s a rising issue.”

They need to know someone is there to help, she said.

“I had met a kid named Nick who was 19 and living behind a dumpster behind Rice Box,” Manchester said.

Realizing they needed to do something, Howard and Manchester searched for others concerned about the homeless.

With the opening of the Warming Center at First Presbyterian Church in Florence, they were able to fulfill some needs, but wanted to do more.

“We started just really brainstorming how we could open a homeless shelter here,” she said.

Manchester said she and Howard wondered how a couple of moms with no experience in running a shelter could do so.

They traveled to Nashville that summer to meet Charles Strobel, the priest who started the national program Room in the Inn, to ask how they could start one in Florence.

After numerous early morning Starbucks meetings and talks with friends, they opened the doors of Room in the Inn Shoals, she said.

“Anybody that needed food and shelter in the winter, we were going to make food and shelter available for them,” she said.

“Having that security of knowing all winter long, (that) ‘I know where I’m going to stay’ helps a lot,” she said.

Manchester said educating the community is important to her, and having the support of UNA students is wonderful.

“UNA has stepped up,” she said. “It says a lot to me when our young people care and are engaged.”

If college students can take the time to help, everyone can, she said.