Fluorescent lights and white walls make everything in the room feel washed out—everything except the vibrant personalities. Tim Mathis tells a story about his daughter punching a boy at school to a captive audience that includes a Vietnam War veteran, Allan, who laughs, showing a couple of missing teeth.
Meanwhile, Paul Johnson is teaching some Union students how to play Spades, and he laughs as they make mistakes or ask questions.
I’m sitting in the corner trying to write everything down as it happens, which is impossible because so much is happening at one time. For a while I forget that these men are staying at Fesmire Field House for the night because they have nowhere else to go.
They are here for Room in the Inn, a program within Area Relief Ministries (ARM), which gives homeless men in Jackson a place to sleep, shower and enjoy a hot meal at night.
Union’s Social Work Reaches Out (SWRO) program hosts the event in the field house once a month for these men. A different student organization provides food and spends time playing games and getting to know the men each month. Some even stay overnight.
“I love interacting with people of Jackson that are so different from the people of Union,” said Melodie Fitzpatrick, junior social work major and coordinator of Room in the Inn for SWRO. “The guys have so many different experiences to share, some of which are great, but others are not so great.”
The men there are so different from me, a private college student, which makes me nervous when I first walk into the field house with my backpack and camera.
As I set my belongings down, I am hyper-aware of where my stuff is in relation to the men staying there. It’s an intuitive response of nervousness in unknown surroundings, but I feel guilty for assuming things about the men.
“People assume if you’re homeless that you’re a bad person,” said Alex McCommon, Room in the Inn volunteer coordinator. “But sometimes they’re just down on their luck, or something out of their control has happened.”
He maintains lightheartedness, joking with the guys about their desire to break minor rules, like wearing nametags. He said he believes in the guys he works with and knows they are good people in tough situations—people like Johnson, who had come to Room in the Inn just a couple days before.
His story is that of a man who had been doing pretty well, working hard and making money. But when a motorcycle accident broke a vertebra in his neck, it caused him to be bedridden for a year.
Johnson boasted of his strength and ability before the accident, but he recognized those days had passed. While he could walk and perform seemingly all motor functions again, he said doing the construction and home renovation jobs he used to work alone were close to impossible now.
“I can’t hold things in my right hand anymore without dropping it, and I’m right-handed,” he said.
Now in his sixties, Johnson’s age has finally caught up with him. Sadness hangs about him for the first part of the night, but during the card game, he comes alive, joking with the students and playfully snapping at Mathis about trying to sabotage his game.
The night wears on, and eventually the guys grow tired and just want to take a hot shower in the field house. Allan was very adamant that he wanted his shower, which would be impossible without the facilities, soaps and towels that Room in the Inn provides.
At Union, we talk a lot about glorifying God through our actions or giving God the praise for what is going on in our lives. That is much harder for men who seem to be beaten down by life through either their own decisions or instances outside their control.
With the men at Room in the Inn, it would be easy for them to believe that God is not for them or he is not good. But those men brought life to the room when the lights, walls and even some of the students were dim.
As time passed from my initial entrance, I slowly became less wary of where my things were. My laptop and camera wound up on opposite sides of the room as I took an interest in the stories and lives of these men.
The morning came, and the men were off to return to ARM and eventually reenter the real world. Reality began to set in—they aren’t going to a dorm room, apartment or house to get some rest and then go to class or work. They will be looking for work or fighting for social security or disability payments with offices in town.
There is no guarantee they will be back the following night. Maybe it’s because they get to stay with a friend or family member—or maybe it’s for a not-so-great reason, which is the scary part.
As the men leave to go through another day of living without a home, trying to find a job, trying to just get by with what they can, I head back to my dorm. But I will not forget the men who were so full of life, wisdom, sadness, stories and at times, hope for the future.