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Nashville’s homeless find comfort, community through Room in the Inn

Jonah Moore says she only made one mistake as a parent, but that mistake cost her everything.

She says she doesn’t want to talk about it tonight, but she lingers at the table long after her chili and cornbread grow cold, dominating conversation with a litany of her many struggles.

Some of her stories seem credible, others clearly don’t add up. Her emotions seem as sporadic as the knitting pattern on her multi-colored wool hat. One moment, angry. The next, grateful. But always, sincere.

And always she comes back to one point:

“I was a good mom. A very, very good mom.”

A middle-aged mother of three who says she’s only three credits shy of a master’s degree from Temple University, Moore may not seem to fit the homeless archetype.

But when she lost custody of her children — which she says happened because she forgot to turn in a homeschooling form — her life quickly spiraled out of control.

“I basically dropped off the grid. I didn’t want an apartment no more, I didn’t want any neighbors no more,” she said. “I literally didn’t talk to anyone for like a year or something.”

Now, she’s homeless. And tonight, she, and six other women will spend the night in the Belmont Sport Science Center, as part of the Room in the Inn Winter Shelter program.

These women, along with almost 1,500 of Nashville’s homeless, stay at churches and community buildings around Middle Tennessee. They get a hot meal and a bed for the night before returning to the streets in the morning.

Each Wednesday and Friday night, six to eight women stay in the sports science building, where student volunteers prepare food and spend time chatting with the guests. Two of those students spend the night, waking up at 4:45 a.m. to heat up breakfast before volunteers from the Nashville Islamic Center arrive to take the women back to Room in the Inn’s headquarters.

Many students volunteer to fulfill convocation or other community service requirements. Others simply like the feeling of doing a good thing for someone else.

As a senior hurrying to finish up those pesky convocation hours, Jordan Baker picked Room in the Inn on a whim.

“I’m glad I picked it though, because it’s just a bunch of women that come in, and they’re grumpy because they’re frickin cold,” she says, darting around the kitchen trying to finish cooking the chili and cornbread muffins before the women arrive. “It’s really lowkey too. I don’t know what I was expecting, but women come in and they just want to eat and be warm and then they just want to go to sleep.”

A few minutes later, a knock sounds at the outside door, announcing the guests’ arrival. The women spill out of two cars. Some carry duffel bags, others tote garbage bags stuffed with their belongings.

As soon as they enter the building, they claim their cots, dragging them to spots around the perimeter of the gym. Some of the women cluster in groups of two or three, arranging their beds to face each other like middle schoolers at a sleepover. Others sit alone, as far removed from their neighbors as possible.

Most of the guests seem focused on getting warm and making up their beds. But Jonah Moore focuses on one thing only — dinner.

“I was here twice last week, and twice last week I had spaghetti. And then I had spaghetti again at another church. And this week, we had spaghetti for lunch,” she says. “They tried to make it alfredo, but it was spaghetti.”

She seems relieved at the prospect of eating chili tonight instead.

Before too long, the other women gather, asking for food and coffee. The volunteers set up tables in the middle of the lobby and wheel out a cart with chili, cornbread muffins, coffee and Coke.

These women don’t seem like the type to withhold complaints, but when it comes to the food, they offer only praise.

“I like this a lot more than spaghetti,” Moore says. “I think spaghetti just has to be made by Italians. I mean I know that sounds really biased and probably stereotypical, but I’m old school so I just call it like I see it.”

As the women finish their chili and Baker wheels out a pan of brownies, the conversation slips out of the superficial and into the deeply personal.

The women lament various aches and ailments — “Don’t get no arthritis, because it hurts like — pardon my language — hell,” Victoria Boyd says.

They talk about dead or estranged parents — one woman says she has no family except for her husband.

But nothing moves Moore and Boyd more than when they talk about their children.

Both women say they have bipolar disorder, and both lost custody of their children as a result.

“My mental capacity wasn’t ready for children,” Boyd says. “I had to sign my rights away. I cried like a baby. I cried, I cried, I cried. But now they’re grown, and my two sons say ‘thank you Mama.’”

Moore says her bipolar disorder makes her forget things — like enrolling her children in school — and everything started to fall apart when she lost custody of her two youngest kids.

Her oldest daughter, who turned 18 before the Department of Children’s Services case, doesn’t talk to her at all anymore, and Moore can’t seem to figure out why. Tears fill Moore’s eyes, and her voice falters when she mentions it.

“It hurts when you have a child that won’t even talk to you anymore and you don’t know what you did,” she says.

Despite not talking to her daughter for a while either, Boyd remains confident in a future for their relationship.

“Once I get back on my feet, she’ll come around.”

That’s the other thing Boyd and Moore share — hope.

In the midst of the heartache of losing their children, the agony of not knowing how to fix broken relationships and the uncertainty of living on the streets, both women cling to one belief which gets them through — it won’t be this way forever.

The first step to fixing things? Finding a permanent home.

“Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, y’all won’t see me anymore. I’m getting my own place,” Boyd says with a proud smile. If she gets her life together again, her daughter might come back into her life, she said. But for now, she concentrates her energy on her sons.

“They come by and check on me, and I tell them, ‘Don’t be like me. Walk across that stage and make me proud.’ And that’s exactly what they did,” she says.

“And now, my middle child will be graduating from college. The very first one out of my family!”

Boyd plans to be there at MTSU cheering him on, for this and for everything else in his life.

“Even though somebody else adopted him,” Boyd says, “he still knows who I am. He calls me Mama now.”

Moore hopes her daughter can see her the same way soon, but she’s happy to still be close with her to younger children. After all, “two out of three ain’t bad!”

Hoping to get a place of her own soon, Moore says she needed her time on the streets to get away from everything for a while.

“But it’s cold out there,” she adds.

With the dishes clean and the conversation dying down, the women start to go their separate ways, some taking showers, others settling into bed. They know the night goes quickly, and in just eight hours, stomachs full from a hot breakfast, they will pack up their bags and pile back into cars which will take them back to the cold winter streets.

But for now, Jonah Moore is content. She leaves her chili on the table in case she decides to come back to it later.

“I really love coming here, because I’m around the students and the young people, and I feel like I’m closer to my own daughter,” she says. “Nothing like a hot meal on a cold evening in the company of some really nice, outstanding people.”

“Anyways, that’s a little bit of my story.” She chuckles lightly, smiling for the first time since she started talking about her daughter. “But this is some real good chili!”

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