A woman who received new shoes for work for the first time in as long as she could remember.
A person struggling with addiction who made the decision to begin treatment.
A homeless mother of four who finally secured a home for her family.
Each of these people has entered the chapel of the former Little Rock Church in Bowling Green’s Delafield neighborhood, which now houses local nonprofit HOTEL INC. They ring the bell in celebration of their accomplishments, each one reached as these individuals navigate a path littered with hurdles.
The organization operates on a mission to “provide Warren County citizens with pathways to stable housing, community resources, building relationships, quality food, and serving our neighbors.”
Services offered include Life Classes and chaplain services; food pantry Manna Mart; a drop-in center for phone, computer, laundry and shower use, as well as homeless resources; financial assistance on a reciprocal giving system, where for each $10 received recipients must devote an hour of time in Life Classes, church services or volunteering; Short Term Rent Assistance with Case Management; veterans and homeless services; and a street medicine program.
“A lot of people ask about our name, and we get a lot of calls asking, ‘Do you have a hotel room available?’ But our name stands for Helping Others Through Extending Love In the Name of Christ,” said Executive Director Rhondell Miller. “The name itself if you know the acronym is just a beautiful way of our community being ecumenical. We come together from all walks of life, we serve together and we cheer each other on. That’s part of being in a strong community.”
Miller emphasizes the education aspect of the organization’s work. Overcoming financial, housing or food insecurity is often a matter of learning skills many people take for granted.
“We’ve done a lot of work here within our organization of discussing charity work versus development work,” Miller said. “I strongly believe in development work. It’s about meeting people where they are; not where we want them to be. I think that’s really important in serving, but it’s also about not providing a handout. It’s about helping the person recognize what their barriers or needs are and what their plans are. Where do they plan to be, not where I want them to be or a volunteer wants them to be.”
According to 2016 Census data, Warren County’s population stands just above 65,000. But a booming population comes with both growth in prosperity and growth in underserved populations. Bowling Green’s poverty level is at about 28 percent. For comparison, Kentucky’s overall poverty rate is about 18.5 percent.
“Our wage and cost-of-living gap is growing,” Miller said. “Here in Bowling Green in the city limits we’ve reached about a 70 percent rental market. Of that 70 percent, over 50 percent of them are paying out 60 percent of their bring-home pay in rent. If one thing happens, if your child is sick, if your car breaks down, you don’t have the extra money to make rent. … We also don’t want to build dependence on, OK let’s call this church this month and this organization the next month and so on and so on, because eventually there will be no one else to call, and you didn’t address anything in the process.”
Noting a large flow chart hanging on her office wall, Miller explained the process of HOTEL INC’s housing assistance program.
“Eighty percent of people who become homeless can solve their own situation of being homeless on their own. Typically that 80 percent is rebounding within two to three weeks.”
Some people may need referrals to other services, and some may simply need short-term education to overcome barriers to stable housing. Others may decide not to complete the program because they need to meet other goals before housing becomes an immediate priority. Those who qualify for the housing assistance program develop a plan to achieve their goals, and they receive education, guidance and assistance to get there.
“Right now our housing department has 79 active households working through, some form or fashion, on their housing.”
In addition to the housing services offered, HOTEL INC’s Manna Mart helps put healthy food in hungry neighbors’ hands. According to the latest organized data from 2016, the food pantry served more than 1,400 different households. Again stressing the education component, Miller says HOTEL INC partners with other entities to help recipients learn meal planning and preparation to stretch their food dollars, have access to nutritious food and make healthier choices.
“So one of the things that happens in food insecure homes is that you tend to end up with a lot more chronic conditions because you’re eating the poor man’s diet—a lot of high processed foods, high in sugars. We get a lot of empty calories and not a lot of solid whole nutrients. I want better access for people. I think when I’ve watched a grandma cry because she got grapes in our food pantry and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d ever eaten grapes, that’s important. We don’t want to harm our neighbors. So if our food pantry doesn’t have good quality nutritious food in it, what are we doing? And are we possibly a detriment to their health? So that’s a challenge.”
HOTEL INC is now in its 37th year, and goals for the next five years are in development to address those challenges.
“I think it is really exciting to see that our organization has evolved as our community has evolved, and we’ve adapted to try to meet the needs of our neighbors but remain to the core of our acronym as well,” Miller said. “To think about where we have been and where we are today and the strategic plan that the board and I and other committees are currently working on for the next five years, to me, is not only inspiring, it’s encouraging.”
Miller just celebrated seven years with HOTEL INC. When she began, there were about 60 volunteers; that number has grown to nearly 200. The annual budget was $85,000; this year it sits right at $560,000. Community support is what allows the organization to reach so many in need.
“The majority of our funding comes from private donations here in our community. We try to write about $100,000 worth of grant funds, but the rest is going to come from undesignated gifts from right here in our community,” Miller explained.
Providing assistance and advocacy for others isn’t without its hardships, but Miller and the HOTEL INC team believe wholeheartedly in the work they do. The celebratory chime of the church bells and what that represents is validation of the importance of HOTEL INC’s mission.
“When folks have good news to celebrate, we gather. The world of HOTEL INC stops and we all go to the chapel—neighbors, volunteers, whoever’s here—we go into the chapel for a bell ringing and give that person the opportunity to share their testimony of what they have overcome to celebrate in ringing that bell,” Miller said. “Not very long ago a lady wanted to ring it because we were able to provide her with new shoes for work, and she couldn’t remember the last time she had new shoes. She said, ‘I just want to thank God for these new shoes’ … We celebrate that, because that is worth it. That’s what living life in community is about. We cry together, we laugh together, we bang our heads together and we celebrate together.”
For more information on HOTEL INC, visit hotelincbg.com.