Freeland Davis has seen what years of living on the street can do to a man, and he's doing his part to reverse that.
"These men have been forgotten by society. People won't even look at them anymore," said Davis, director of Room in the Inn, a non-profit organization beginning its sixth year working with member churches to provide a room and food for Lexington's homeless throughout the winter months.
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"We try to undo that a little. We always greet them, pat them on the back and love them every way we can. Our ministry is about restoring some respect and dignity to their lives," he said. "We treat them as honored guests."
Davis and former pastor of The Rock, Wes Olds, founded Room In the Inn in Lexington in 2003 in response to the city's forced closing of a homeless shelter at that church the previous year. They wanted to find a way to continue to help the homeless, but in a more controlled environment. Room in the Inn is modeled after a program of the same name begun 23 years ago in Nashville.
Homeless men apply to be guests in the program, undergoing a thorough background check and submitting to a breathalyzer test each evening before being admitted. Before this year's season — which runs Nov. 2 through March 28 — began, the program selected the 30 men it would host this year. Those 30 are now guaranteed a bed at one of the member churches every night for the 21 coldest weeks of the year.
"They are so happy to be out of the cold in a warm, safe environment," said Davis, who works full-time as director of property administration at Alliance Coal and volunteers with Room in the Inn at least three or four hours a day throughout the winter. Davis is on call all hours of the night if a church has a problem, but in the program's six years, he's been called only once to remove a guest, he said.
"I had this insatiable desire to give more," Davis said of his decision to work with the homeless.
With Room in the Inn, he's found his calling.
"These guys have become some of my best friends. I would do anything in the world for them," he said.
Davis' wife, Dana, is also an active volunteer in the ministry.
This year, Room in the Inn will host twice the number of guests as in past years, when the maximum capacity was just 14.
"We have doubled our capacity, but there is still tremendous need," Davis said. "I have witnessed more need this year than ever before."
When the program began locally, it had just four member churches and hosted men just four nights a week.
It's now grown to include 18 churches of different faiths, with new churches coming on board all the time. A single church hosts no more than 14 men on any given night. Some churches host the men once a week, others every other month, some once a month.
Under the program, member churches take turns serving as an "inn" for the night. Each church provides the men with a comfortable, inviting bed — air mattresses fitted with clean sheets and even a mint — along with a warm meal when they arrive, a hot breakfast before they leave and a sack lunch to take with them.
Church volunteers prepare the meals at their homes and take them to the churches to serve the men, so the only cost to churches to become a host is an initial purchase of air mattresses, Davis said.
Tom Howard, a Room in the Inn board member, often serves alongside Davis as one of the group's evening innkeepers, staying overnight at the host churches to keep the men company.
He and Davis relish the friendships they've fostered with the men, some of whom have been guests with the program for its entire six years.
"I'm grateful and humble to be a part of this ministry," Howard said. "We feel blessed to just let God's love flow through us to them."
Said Davis, "We are there to meet them wherever they are in life. We are not there to force them to go out and get a job and live like us."
"These are a great bunch of guys," he added. "They are not at all the stereotype of the homeless person that most folks imagine. Working with them keeps me at center — to realize how quickly in life a circumstance could come along and make any of us be in that same situation. None of us are immune to homelessness."
Room in the Inn is actively seeking additional member churches to help host guests this winter. Churches do not need to have a kitchen or shower facilities available, just a warm floor and a bathroom, Davis said. For more information about how to make a donation or have your church become a host church with Room in the Inn, e-mail Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.