News: Room at the Inn

Religious shelter helps homeless be accountable for their lives

Nov 30, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Holiday Issue

Depression, despair and hopelessness are part of the holiday season for many people. The dramatic change in weather, combined with the emotional intensity of family issues, make coping a little bit harder for the homeless, according to the staff of City Gospel Mission.

The organization's goal is to break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that leads to the blues during this time of year. The approach is simple: Address basic needs first — food, clothing and shelter — then provide the services people need to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," as their promotional literature puts it, and bring those being helped into a faith community.

To take advantage of the mission's generosity, those in need are required to follow Christian beliefs, participate in religious services and pay a $15 fee for a weekly stay at the shelter.

Latrine duty for the needy
"I don't believe in total hand-outs," says Sterling Hawks, director of the City Gospel Mission, located at 1419 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine. "There's obligations to everything we do in life. It's something to give them a little more self-confidence, some pride."

Hawks believes the demand for cash asks clients, "How serious are you about change?" Noting that the small amount doesn't cover the full expenses for a guest, he says it's a reasonable charge that serves to motivate a homeless person to pursue finding a job or training that will eventually lead to employment.

For those who can't afford the fee?

"We assign them some type of duty, like cleaning the restrooms," Hawks says. "They have something they've done to earn it. They would not see it as a total hand-out. We want to go a step further and not just meet the initial basic needs."

That extra step is helping the homeless address the issues that resulted in their plight. To that end, the mission provides a variety of services, such as addiction recovery programs and discipleship training, in addition to the meals, clothing and emergency food baskets provided to men and women.

In 2004 the City Gospel Mission served 4,673 people, according to Barbara Flick, spokeswoman for the organization. One in 80 Cincinnatians experienced homelessness during that same period, and that population is diverse, she says.

"Sixty percent of Cincinnati's homeless population are high school graduates," Flick says. "Five percent have college degrees. One-third are children, 68 percent are of a minority race and only 20 percent abuse drugs and alcohol."

Hawks uses substance abuse as an example to illustrate a key component to why people make bad choices.

"It starts with loss of identity and doing things not beneficial to them," he says. "Drugs, alcohol, almost anything to medicate the pain. But you can't medicate the pain. You need to deal with it directly."

Those who wish to enter the 90-day programs at the mission fill out an application and undergo an evaluation so staff can determine how committed the individual is to making meaningful change. The mission's Web site ( indicates that all of the staff have religious training or a religious calling but none have formal training as therapists or recovery specialists.

"(The programs are) based on our own experiences," Hawks says. "Some of it comes from the 12-step programs. But there are things from that program that I do not agree with. When they are identifying themselves, they don't call themselves an alcoholic or a drug addict. They are individuals who have fallen from grace and have used drugs or alcohol. Their identity is not in what they've done in the past."

Praying for food
Religion and God inspire everything at the mission. Guests are required to participate in a non-denominational Christian devotion before eating breakfast and attend a chapel service that lasts approximately 45 minutes before they can sit down to dinner. For those who aren't able or willing to attend chapel, participating in a discipleship class is permissible.

The requirements don't stop there. A photo ID is required to enter the building. Hawks says this is necessary to know who is in the facility, and it's another means of holding the homeless accountable for taking charge of their lives. If they really want help, not just a free meal, then they'll do what's necessary to have that piece of identification, he says.

While former male sex offenders are welcome to take advantage of services, they aren't permitted to utilize the shelter due to the fact that the facility is within 1,000 feet of a school. Ohio law doesn't permit any sex offender — regardless of their crime or the age of their victim — to live that close to a school, including temporary housing.

Hawks believes all of these things together set an expectation for people to meet, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. He's adamant that the religious component is essential for the homeless to learn how to live moral and productive lives. His time at the mission has taught him that, even though many people know the Bible, they don't know "how to apply it" in everyday life, he says.

"What they're doing here is part of the future," Hawks says.

While he doesn't fault the approach of other agencies, he believes the City Gospel Mission is the future of city ministry. If you'd like to support their work, the mission has a "brown bag" donation program seeking donations of food and money in keeping with their tradition of relying on private donors for support.

The organization's Christmas Store is collecting new and gently used toys and clothing that can be sold to the homeless men and women of urban Cincinnati at a reduced price. ©