Umeki Jones recently helped a client, a homeless woman, land a janitorial job.
“We pointed her in a direction to a place that would possibly be able to help her, and they did hire her,” Jones says. “She came back today to show us her schedule.”
Jones is an intake manager at the Hospitality Hub, a non-profit organization that offers services for people cycling through homelessness—anything from job counseling to help getting a state ID. Sometimes, just a cup of coffee.
The Hospitality Hub is even helping the client with a bus pass to get to and from work. But the job has created a new challenge. The homeless shelter where she's staying doesn’t allow entries past 5 pm. Her shift isn’t over by then.
The only shelter that can accommodate the woman is a two-hour bus ride away. It costs $10 a night.
This is one reason the Hospitality Hub is looking to offer more than mere guidance. It needs beds, specifically for women.
“If we had our shelter and she was working as a client of ours, we know that she would be getting off work at this time," Jones says. “We would have someone there ready for her.”
The Hospitality Hub has raised $5.5 million toward a new facility downtown, a plan that includes a 32-bed emergency women’s shelter.
“The need is so profound,” says the Hub’s director Kelcey Johnson, pointing out that women are nearly 40 percent of Memphis’ homeless population, but have access to less than 10 percent of local shelter beds.
“This past year...a woman froze to death [Downtown],” he says. “The city was outraged, but I see it every single year; I have female clients who are raped [or] murdered.”
The City of Memphis and the Shelby County Commission are offering operational support for the new Hub headquarters. Each has proposed more than $1 million in funding over three years.
The city has already approved the allocation, while the commission is slated to vote on it in June.
Unlike other shelters, the Hospitality Hub’s lodging will not have barriers to entry such as fees, age limits for children or check-in time constraints.
It’s something that would have helped Shundria Anderson through uncertain times.
“It’s a depressing feeling to watch people go to their houses, and you’re just sitting there,” says the 42-year-old, who’s been homeless off and on for years. “You don’t know where you going to sleep at.”
Anderson is living with her sister now, but at one point slept in her storage unit and in a local hospital’s bathroom.
She's turned to the Hub for assistance more than once. Currently, she's makes $50 dollars a day most weekends emptying trash bins along Main Street through a Hub program.
She says the organization's methods are uncommon among those serving the homeless.
"We need someone that's going to care and show us the way how to get up out of this," she says.
While the Hospitality Hub's new beds will fill an immediate need, Brad Watkins, the director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, isn’t convinced that another shelter is how local government should be combatting homelessness. An investment in longer-term housing programs is a more effective approach to keep people off the streets, he says.
“In a city with the problems that we have, something like this sounds like a godsend, and it will be to a small amount of people,” Watkins says. “[But] for that same amount of money, we can provide permanent supportive housing for four times that many people.”
Rhodes College Professor Ari Eisenberg, who is writing a book about homelessness in America, says the cities most successfully tackling homelessness are funding multiple solutions.
"I suppose you could say permanent housing should be prioritized because the ultimate goal is nobody becomes homeless in the first place," Eisenberg says. "Where Memphis currently is right now, it does have chronically homeless people who are regularly living in shelters and on the street... Until more permanent housing, along with services, is made available to those people, shelters and other services Hospitality Hub provides are going to remain crucial.”
"It really can't be one or the other," Eisenberg adds.
Officials throwing their support behind the Hospitality Hub, like commission Chairman Van Turner, say more funding for homelessness initiatives like what Watkins is suggesting could possibly be budgeted for in the future.
“I would fight for the necessary funding to have both temporary and a permanent housing solution for homeless individuals in this community,” he says.
Meanwhile, Johnson, the Hub director, says it isn’t just about housing.
“Houses don’t cure homelessness,” he says.
The organization’s new headquarters will reflect the center’s holistic approach. It will include a large outdoor plaza where people can rest in a welcoming environment. People will be also be able to safely store their belongings there, get job support, or even earn some money working at an onsite car wash.
“Everything we’re doing is so that people who are experiencing homelessness can interact with someone who’s trying to help them stop experiencing homelessness,” Johnson says.
This post has been updated to clarify Eisenberg's comments.