Savannah churches help build houses for homeless veterans

7/22/2019

By Kara Witherow, Editor

On their way to church each Sunday, many members of Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church drive past the homeless camps near Interstate 16 and the Truman Parkway.

One day, Nick Hitt, a member of the downtown Savannah church, decided that something needed to be done to help.

“There’s no reason we should be driving by veterans sleeping under bridges as we come to church. They served; we need to do something about it,” he said to the congregation.

Others agreed, and the church joined forces with two other Savannah United Methodist Churches – Trinity UMC and Isle of Hope UMC – along with dozens of area businesses and hundreds of individuals, to support the Tiny House Project.

A program of the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless, the Tiny House Project is an effort to combat the rising number of homeless individuals in Savannah. It prioritizes homeless veterans, said Wesley Monumental UMC mission coordinator Scott Cleaveland. According to the Chatham Savannah Homeless Authority, there are roughly 231 homeless veterans in the Savannah area. This effort is expected to lower that number.

“We seem to have a clear calling to work with the homeless,” Cleaveland said of the Wesley Monumental UMC congregation. “It’s the church’s job to create disciples and it’s a disciple’s job to be a witness, and this has become a great witness for all of the United Methodist churches who have been involved."

Trinity UMC, also located in downtown Savannah, was one of the first – if not the first – faith community to partner with the project.

After setting an “audacious goal” of raising $10,000 in seven weeks, they raised more than $12,000.

The church is putting the gospel in action, Rev. Ben Gosden said.

“We have a unique proximity to homeless residents in Savannah,” Rev. Gosden said. “They visit on Sunday mornings, they sleep on our porch, they walk by our building all the time. So, for us, it was a way of … putting our money where our mouth is and saying we’re going to care for them.”

The Tiny House Project – each home is roughly 145 square feet – recently welcomed its first residents, a group of 12 veterans who moved in earlier this month. Future phases are planned, and the entire Tiny House Project, when complete, will include 71 tiny homes plus a clubhouse.

The tiny homes are fully equipped, with a full bathroom, a kitchenette, and a sleeping area that doubles as a living area. Each was built for about $14,000. It’ll cost each resident $240 a month to live in the home.

Church leaders saw this project as an opportunity to put faith into action and to be engaged with the community.

“This congregation is a pretty socially aware congregation, so there’s a very strong feeling among the members that they have a responsibility to act out Christian ethics in real time,” said Tom Madron, a member of Trinity UMC’s Justice Team.

The Isle of Hope UMC congregation is already in ministry with those who are homeless, said Rev. Shannon Baxter, the church’s minister of missions, and the church’s involvement with the Tiny House Project is an extension of that outreach.

“Jesus was about meeting the needs of other people,” he said. “This, to me, is one of those things that helps release people from the things that bind them … and extends our witness into the community and expands the kingdom.”

The three congregations have together raised nearly $80,000 for the Tiny House Project. It’s a true community effort, said Rev. Baxter, with individuals, faith communities, and business contributing. The entire project is 75 to 80 percent funded but still lacks about $600,000.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. We ask for prayers, too, and prayers that the people who end up in the homes will feel at home and supported in those places,” he said. “Being involved in this is a win for the church, a win for the people, and a win for the kingdom of God.”