Volunteer staffer at South Tryon Community UMC’s winter shelter calls foul, but pastor says resources the culprit
Sunday, March 31 was the last night of housing for the South Tryon emergency winter shelter, run by the South Tryon Community United Methodist Church. The program, which has been going on five years, provides shelter from December through March—the coldest months of the year. Its newest volunteer administrator is hot about it.
“There will be more people on the street because, according to the calendar, spring has sprung. News flash, people: Climate change is real and two warm days doesn’t mean it’s fucking summer. People need shelter all year long,” said Jasmine Sherman.
Sherman is an organizer with Greater Charlotte RISE, an advocacy group in Charlotte. Last year, she approached Pastor Ray McKinnon, known for his activism on behalf of affordable housing in Charlotte. Many of his parishioners live in Brookhill Village and Southside Homes, the last bastions of low-income housing in South End.
Photo credit: Brian Twitty
For going on five years, the church has patterned its operations after the model of Room in the Inn, a winter shelter network facilitated by Urban Ministry that helps houses of worship open their facilities to provide shelter and food for homeless people during the winter months. People sign up, meet at Urban Ministry, then are bused to various churches to sleep overnight. Room churches run on a strict in by 6 p.m., out by 7 a.m. schedule. These places can refuse people who don’t fit their religious criteria.
“[That kind of attitude] really pisses me off,” McKinnon said. “People look at folks and think a homeless person is just a terrible person, and say all kinds of self-righteous things. ‘Well if they have money for those cigarettes or that bottle they must not be doing so bad.’ That pack of cigarettes costs $6, a bottle of MD 20/20 costs whatever. But it’s one thing they can control to get a little pleasure. Even us, people who advocate and know better, can be so sanctimonious.”
South Tryon Community is not officially part of the Room network, and they softened the model, allowing people to check in until 9 p.m. and stay in their two small facilities. This better suited the working homeless, whose jobs may require long bus or walking commutes. The church also didn’t discriminate based on religious principle. Last winter the shelter, staffed only by church administrator Debbie Williams and the elderly caretaker known as “Mr. Rabbit,” was overwhelmed by the need.
“We were way over capacity,” said Pastor McKinnon. “The shelters were sending people; hospitals were putting people in cabs and sending them here. We had people sleeping in our conference room.”
So the partnership with Sherman was welcomed. The shelter opened a month early, in November, and she streamlined the program, making it more efficient. Services were expanded beyond food and shelter to include healthcare resources, clothing help, addiction treatment (clean needles and Narcan), and job placement assistance—all without evangelizing.
“There are a lot of religious groups that try to lend a hand to the housing insecure but they don’t do it without proselytizing,” Sherman said. “If you want to help someone do it without preaching. Don’t pick them up, take them to your house of worship so they can listen to a sermon in exchange for food or services. Receiving care and services should not be dependent upon willingness to accept a certain religious worldview.”
“We provided shelter for EVERYONE: men, women, children, non-binary, trans-folk, and families. Not once did sexual orientation come into question. Our transgender neighbors were welcomed with open arms and if people had an issue with that, we welcomed them to leave. We met people where they are in either their addiction or sobriety and as returning citizens without judgment. If we had a space for you then you were fed and sheltered. Our program is an extreme success for the long-term benefit of the housing insecure population,” Sherman said.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
“I will not paint a lie for you. There was violence, vandalism, 911 calls and hospital visits,” Sherman said. But mainly, it was a question of resources—highlighted by the arrival of a pregnant mother and her three children. The staff was anxious to figure out steps for helping her.
“We don’t have capacity for families,” Pastor McKinnon said, “but you don’t push away a pregnant mother.”
They coordinated transportation to and from school for the children, gave them 24/7 access to the shelter, and struggled to help mom figure out a birth plan. Mr. Rabbit, who lives nearby, began sleeping at the shelter as to always be on duty. The assistance came with unforeseen costs.
“We had to increase our insurance,” McKinnon said, “and with people there all the time our bills went up: water, electricity, heating.”
By the end of March, McKinnon said the church had run exceeded their normal shelter budget by about $5,000 a month. The church has a “sibling partnership” with Myers Park United Methodist Church, and the much-wealthier congregation underwrites most basic operating costs for South Tryon Community.
Still. “Folks don’t appreciate that 75 percent of our members live in BrookHill or Southside Homes. We don’t have a large tithing base,” McKinnon said. “The relationship with Myers Park church underwrites our basic expenses and mine and three staffer salaries. We pour all our excess resources into the BrookHill Community Center and our own sustainability. We don’t have the money or staff to run a shelter longer than those critical months. We’re not being forced to close, there’s just no way we’d be able to sustain it. It was already a stretch for us, financially and on our people resources. For Rabbit’s health, we can’t do 24/7 anymore. We’re not being shut down by outside forces. It’s a matter of capacity.”
Sherman said Greater Charlotte RISE offered to provide a volunteer staffer and pay “whatever” deficits were incurred. She doubts money is the issue.
“We protected our guests’ identity and treated them with dignity and respect; which in hindsight could be part of the reason we are being forced to closed down. There is no paper trail that someone can use to get elected or individual that Myers Park Methodist, the ‘benefactor church,’ can use to assuage their white guilt or signal their virtue. We didn’t exploit them by posting their pictures or posing with them in our pictures and we didn’t share their stories without permission,” she said. “We offered to pay rent and salaries to continue using our current location but the sister church wants us gone and thus we are gone.”
“Ray did his thing letting us come there but if Myers Park controls your purse strings, who is that really helping? This is your chance to make a difference. You wouldn’t want your kids sleeping outside in April. Put your money where your mouth is. Everybody’s a Christian until it’s time to act like how I presume a Christian acts. I see a lot of empty buildings at night and we could fix our housing insecurity if we utilized those for people,” Sherman said.
McKinnon doesn’t disagree. “I think it’s obvious there is a crisis in Charlotte. We talk about affordable housing, but not enough about the number of Charlotte folks with no access to stable housing. We need to start thinking about what the government, county and city can do to work with our unhoused neighbors.”
As a commissioner with the Housing Authority, McKinnon says Charlotte’s median income for a family of four is $70,000. Much of the new construction is looking at people making 60 percent above that.
“Folks can’t afford that bracket! Churches have got to put up funding to house people making $20,000… If you’re working a minimum wage job in Charlotte, fixing our meals, building our houses, you can’t afford to live here,” he said. “We like to think people are poor because of their recklessness, or what they haven’t done, instead of looking at the systemic issues that produce what they were created to produce, a separate and unequal Charlotte. Make no mistake, this happened by design. But it didn’t happen overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight. We must realize we’re all in this together.”
Photo credit: Brian Twitty
The Brookhill Community Center is partnering with groups to teach financial literacy, computer literacy, and just incorporated a fund to help cover the gap if community members’ rent is raised. McKinnon is aware that his methods make for less exciting optics than facing down developers.
“We are trying to get ahead of the curve to get people ready for the development that’s coming,” he said. “People try to ding us, but we’re trying to prepare people for the obstacles ahead, not just riling them up with conspiracy theories and suspicions. How does that actually help? I don’t care that people say I’m selling out. A whole group [Serve the People Charlotte] came into my church with a banner saying ‘Rayshawn McKinnon is selling out.’ They put my entire government name up there,” he said with a laugh. “I just don’t want people to look back in regret wishing they’d known more. We’re working to prepare them for as many outcomes as possible.”
“But we need people like that too, who force the conversation. Even if I don’t agree with their tactics, I think they’re coming from a righteous place in their hearts and it forces others to stop ignoring poor people. It takes all of us in this struggle.”
Learn more about South Tryon Community United Methodist Church at https://www.stcumc.org.
People can help GreaterCharlotteRise.org with donations, by petitioning local churches, or leasing/giving them a space. Greater Charlotte RISE is at: