Ten thousand homeless people live in Tennessee. For every 10,000 people Tennesseans, 12 don’t have a permanent home.
In Wilson County, when a winter storm drops temperatures into the teens, there aren’t a lot of options for the homeless. However as a guest at the Compassionate Hands Ministries in Lebanon said, there is one place they can always turn.
“This place saved my life,” said Robert Jason Taylor of Manchester.
Since late last year, Taylor has looked to Compassionate Hands time and again for a full meal, hot shower, and shelter when the weather demands it. At Compassionate Hands, accommodations are provided without preconditions, something Taylor says differentiates them from other shelters. “Drinking is a big problem, especially when people on the street are trying to stay warm. If you show up with a buzz, Compassionate Hands isn’t gonna turn you away.”
Anticipating the inclement weather, Compassionate Hands extended normal service hours this week. Taylor said he normally comes at 6 p.m., stays for the night and leaves at 7:30 the next morning, but on Sunday when Taylor arrived he found out he could stay until the weather passed.
Considering the weather, the shelter opted for a full-day window to keep people inside. Taylor pointed to a few weather-related fatalities he’d heard about in Murfreesboro from this cold spell, and said, “this place kept some people from freezing this week.”
For Taylor, Compassionate Hands was an answer to prayers. He was stranded in the area without anywhere to go, when an elderly homeless couple he met in town told him about Compassionate Hands. “I went down there right away and they blew my expectations out of the water.”
Taylor received a hot shower, got to shave and wash his clothes. Then he got a home cooked meal. “The food might be the best part,” he said.
Every night on a rotating basis, area churches provide a warm meal for the guests. Sometimes it’s prepared at home, sometimes it’s take out, but according to Taylor, “It’s better than anything you’ll get out there.”
Before acquiring their current building, the organization floated between the churches that still help out today. Starting in 2012, a group of Christians set out to make sure nobody froze to death in Wilson County. Nine years later, Compassionate Hands has received contributions from over 40 area churches, has provided 10,000 beds and 20,000 meals to hundreds of people in the community.
By 2018, the organization started looking for a facility to serve as an office and ministry space. That ultimately led to the space they currently occupy at 214 N. College St. in Lebanon, but not before COVID-19 hit.
The shelter plan that had worked was not adequate for a pandemic. After studying Center for Disease Control guidelines for limiting the spread of coronavirus, the team at Compassionate Hands decided to expand to two separate facilities for men and women.
The Glade Church provided the answer for the women’s shelter, and the North College Street location became the men’s shelter.
Tracking homelessness can be tricky. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts annual point-in-time counts every January. This data is used to compile homeless totals from state to state. While these numbers are typically agreed upon, they lack location-specific information that can make targeting localized homeless causes difficult.
Varying degrees of homelessness are designed to identify problems these different groups face. One category is sheltered or unsheltered. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the perpetually unsheltered group is 30% of Tennessee’s homeless population.
On any given day, it’s hard to say how many homeless people are living in Wilson County. For organizations like Compassionate Hands, it’s not about raw numbers though. Anyone who shows up at their door will receive help.
Shelter space is sparse, but several organizations are stepping up in other ways. The Future Business Leaders of America branch in Watertown is conducting a community service project throughout February.
The club is collecting items to donate to the Wilson County Community Help Center. Items include toothbrushes, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, shaving cream, wet wipes and hair brushes, with intent to package ‘care kits.’ The club is also accepting sleeping bags.
If you would like to donate all of these items, you can place them in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Contact club advisers Cameron Jennings (email@example.com) or Wally Luckeydoo (firstname.lastname@example.org) at Watertown High School.
The Wilson County Community Help Center is another great source for help. The center assists the needy with free clothing and emergency food. They also provide bill assistance.