When Floyd Carrethers first moved to Little Rock, he dreamed of a better life. But eventually his marriage was in crisis.
“I had to leave the house,” he said, “but I had no place to go. I was living paycheck to paycheck.”
Into the August heat, Carrethers, 33, was accompanied by his two sons, ages 9 and 6, from a previous relationship. Eating in alleys, sleeping in a car and finding shade under a bridge was unthinkable.
Carrethers said he picked up the Yellow Pages and looked under “Homeless Feeding and Shelters.”
“The first shelter that I came to [in the listings] agreed with my spirit,” he said. “It was just that name — interfaith.”
He and his sons became one of the 58 homeless families who have found temporary refuge in the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Little Rock (IHN-LR).
The emergence of IHN-LR comes as the region struggles to address the needs of the homeless. Surveys from by the Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless (CATCH) show that the number of homeless people has risen by 27.5 percent since 2004.
The Interfaith Hospitality Network is unique: It takes only families, and houses them in 16 host churches from six denominations. The churches take turns converting their facilities into temporary housing for a week at a time. Its annual budget is about $100,000, much of that deriving from Presbyterian Church-affiliated grants and gifts.
Every Sunday, a van pulls up to one of the host churches and unloads roll-away beds into Sunday School classrooms, where sofas and other furniture have also been arranged. The system serves up to 16 people at a time who are fed and housed with the help of up to 50 volunteers, who also offer fellowship.
“The experience leaves [homeless families] with a spiritual imprint,” director Janet Nelson said. “The volunteers in the church make it a rich experience.”
Interfaith Hospitality Network shelters keep families intact by allowing them to share quarters, rather than segregating areas by gender as many shelters do. “It is vitally important to us to keep children with their parents while the family works to regain self-sufficiency,” said Nelson, who with assistant Elizabeth Camper works from donated space in First Presbyterian Church in downtown Little Rock.
During the day, nearly half of the shelter's “guests,” as they are called, go to work, often scrambling to make a deposit on an apartment or down payment on a house, hosts say. Children go to school, and adults get job placement assistance, financial planning and life-skills help, usually in evening classes at the church.
Nelson said the program recognizes that “everyone who comes here is in crisis” and rebounding is even more difficult without social and emotional support.
The IHN began in 1986 in New York City, when a woman encountering homeless people looked to the religious community for help. Paul Flanagan of Little Rock, then a member of Asbury United Methodist Church, is credited with bring the concept of an interfaith network to Little Rock in 2005.
More than 70 percent of guest families have found permanent or transitional housing within three months or so, Nelson said. The balance withdraw, some voluntarily and some who are asked to. The program is not for everyone.
Today, Floyd Carrethers is reconciled with his wife, and he and his two boys have returned to their home.
He starts most days doing a Wal-Mart cheer with his co-workers before cleaning floors and bathrooms for eight hours, then works five more hours each evening on similar duties for Garden Ridge.
“(IHN staff and volunteers) were there when we needed a secure place for me and my kids to eat, to have someone to talk to, for counseling, or someone to pray with. There was always someone there,” Carrethers said.
Nelson said hosts benefit as well. Their encounter with their desperate neighbors puts a face on the homelessness issue.
“Everyone sees how fragile life can be, and that we are all in this together,” Nelson said.
Participating churches are Central Church of Christ, First Christian (Sherwood), First United Methodist (Maumelle), First United Methodist, Grace Presbyterian, Highland Valley United Methodist, Park Hill Presbyterian, Pulaski Heights Baptist, Pulaski Heights Christian, Pulaski Heights United Methodist, Quapaw Quarter United Methodist, St. Margaret's Episcopal, St. Michael's Episcopal, Second Presbyterian, Trinity Presbyterian and Westover Hills Presbyterian.
Dale Ingram volunteers with the program at Pulaski Heights Baptist.