At Hotel Louisville, the homeless serve the guests

A Kentucky nonprofit moves homeless recovering addicts into a hotel, then opens the hotel for business

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A few unflattering reviews are to be expected with any hotel, particularly one whose rates start at $49 per night. But while complaints about shabby rooms and thin towels are common in the industry, ones like these, from, are not:

“It is a clean hotel but there are a lot of homeless people there.”

“Run far far away!!!!! This is a homeless shelter, not a hotel!”

“DO NOT STAY HERE UNLESS YOU ARE HOMELESS… All of the workers are former addicts/homeless people.”

Hotel Louisville, 12 stories of brick adorned with a large white cross, is indeed a hotel and event space open to the public. At the same time, it is a transitional-housing facility, substance-abuse recovery center and job-training site owned and operated by Wayside Christian Mission, a nonprofit that shelters and feeds the city’s homeless population.

Wayside bought the building at a foreclosure auction in 2009, never intending to rent rooms to the general public. It was simply a place to house the homeless. But as expenses mounted and travelers came through the lobby, remembering what used to be a Holiday Inn and seeking a place to stay, Wayside began to make use of its empty rooms.

Four years later, Hotel Louisville is in many ways an improbable success, serving addicts and the homeless while turning a profit from hotel guests and banquets, even during the recession. Perhaps the nation’s only such hybrid, it defies the usual categories — homeless shelter and charity; hotel and for-profit enterprise — and reflects a growing embrace of commerce by social-services groups normally funded by government and foundation grants. Yet Wayside’s pivot from a traditional model of charity toward the seductions of business tells its own complicated tale, showing just how hard it is to do good.

Not In My Backyard

The lobby of Hotel Louisville
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

Every homeless shelter has a NIMBY problem. Try building a new facility or renovating an old one and the neighbors come out of the woodwork to protest each additional bed. But the battle waged against Hotel Louisville was unusual even in the long history of Wayside Christian Mission, founded in 1957.

The saga began six years ago, after the group finally raised enough money to replace its worn-out transitional-housing facility for women and kids. Initially, the married couple at Wayside’s helm — Tim Moseley, a bearded, heavyset minister, and his wife, Nina, an attorney with waist-length platinum blonde hair — intended to build on property it already owned along gentrifying Market Street. Real-estate developers with city-hall ties killed the plan, claiming the need for “historic preservation,” and forced Wayside to sell its Market Street building. The Moseleys then tried to buy a former school, but that effort was blocked by irate neighbors and a zoning decision effectively prohibiting new homeless shelters in the city. The ban was later declared unlawful by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Then, in early 2009, the Moseleys heard that the downtown Holiday Inn, nicknamed “Hotel Louisville,” would be sold at a foreclosure auction. The final price tag of $10 million depleted all the funds Wayside had raised through its years-long capital campaign and proceeds from the Market Street sale, but at 187 rooms and 169,400 square feet, the building could house hundreds.

Eighty-three homeless women moved into the hotel in November. Shortly thereafter, with utility costs mounting and many floors vacant, the Moseleys saw an opportunity. “People kept coming through and asking for a room,” Nina Moseley recalled. So Wayside opened Hotel Louisville to the public while continuing to provide shelter and substance-abuse recovery services to women in need, free of charge. 

Home at a hotel

The hotel’s high-ceilinged lobby resembles that of a ski resort, with an elaborate chandelier, a grand piano and extensive wood paneling. It’s a busy crossroads of guests and long-term residents — plus thrifty diners lured by the $5 soul food-buffet in the adjacent restaurant. I first visited Hotel Louisville in June and recently returned for a five-day stay. After checking in at the front desk, I took a well-worn elevator to my room on the ninth floor, one of five levels open to the general public. It was a standard, budget-rate hotel room: clean and air-conditioned, with a TV and small desk free of flourish.

Cassie Lintz settles down for the night with her daughters Kendal, age 4, and Chloe, age 6, on right.
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

I’d soon learn that the residents’ quarters, on floors four, five, six and eleven, are homey and personalized, more like tiny apartments than hotel rooms sanitized with Smells BeGone. To date, between 96 and 162 people at a time — mostly women in recovery, but also some children and a few men — have lived in the hotel.

Cassie Lintz and her daughters, preschooler Kendal and first-grader Chloe, know the place better than most. Several months ago, they moved in for a second time. “I had almost two years clean when I relapsed. So I came back here to do this again and get back on track,” Lintz said of her struggle with prescription painkillers.

She and the two round-faced, sandy-haired girls were sharing a room on the hotel’s family floor, home to several mostly single-parent units. Generally, substance-abuse centers require parents to come alone, leaving their children behind. Hotel Louisville is a rarity even among family-based recovery programs, giving clients with children a free, private room, with child care and activities included.

Upstairs, on one of the singles floors, Yolanda Thomas wore her reading glasses to study the Bible in bed. She’d arrived at Hotel Louisville in July, having slept off her last high on a bus from Virginia. She was living in a tidy double with another “girl in the program,” splitting a bathroom, nightstand, TV and table. Thomas’s shoes — including several pairs of pointy high heels she has little occasion to wear — were lined up along the wall. 

Recovering through work?

At early-morning meditation on a recent Friday, Thomas and about two dozen other women — in varying degrees of wakefulness, young and old, white and African-American — sat in a circle of chairs in the first-floor chapel. Everyone clutched a Bible and The Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous. A few brought young children, who played in the back or snoozed in their strollers. (The day care wasn’t yet open.)

Hotel manager Virginia Taylor, or “Miss V,” entered the room around 8 a.m. Short and stocky with freckled brown skin and oiled hair, she’s a former addict with 22 years clean and nearly as much peer-counseling experience. Taylor oversees Wayside’s recovery program and leads the gospel choir. In a thick Southern accent full of tapering R’s, she speaks with the air of a preacher or prison warden.

“The disease does not promise you it’ll be easy. But you have a daily choice to stay sober. Choose to live,” she said.

Taylor led the community meeting, a chance for residents to express grievances with the facility and with one another. Women clapped for every submission of “consequences” — 10,000-word reflections written on handfuls of notebook paper — the punishment for minor infractions, like missing a work shift or neglecting to sign out. The meeting concluded with a collective Lord’s Prayer, and the women then split up for work.

Work therapy — performing housekeeping, food service, security and laundry for public hotel guests — is a key component of Wayside’s recovery program.

Recovery Manager Virginia Taylor, a former addict, leads early-morning meditation, part of the substance-abuse curriculum at Hotel Louisville.
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

“Many of these ladies didn’t know anything about housekeeping, but here, once you get to second phase (of recovery), they can choose to go to another hotel and get a job,” Cheri Hartwill, a recovering addict who leads the cleaning team, explained. “It prepares you — your work ethic, how you treat people — because a lot of us come from the streets.”

Since the work is part of their recovery, and because lodging, food and other basic needs are provided free of charge, hotel residents are given an hourly “gift” of 50 cents to $1.50 per hour in lieu of pay. Residents sign “contracts acknowledging that they’re not employees or workers, but trainees,” said Wayside Chief Operating Officer Nina Moseley.

The work assignments at Hotel Louisville are a more elaborate version of what Wayside and other charities have always asked of their residents. Since long before the hotel opened, Wayside has operated two donation-based Louisville thrift stores, with revenues supporting the organization’s central work. It based this model on that of larger groups like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, which require “beneficiaries” to unload, sort, stock and inventory donated goods in vast warehouses and shops.

But Hotel Louisville residents are split on the value of work therapy. “It’s part of my penance,” Kim, a former nurse, said of her time in the hotel laundry room. Before coming to Wayside in September, she’d lost her home and car and had to sleep on the porch of an abandoned house.

Others in the program say that their long hours and the strenuous nature of work therapy sometimes make it difficult to attend meetings and classes. One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, called these work assignments "unpaid labor," plain and simple. “This isn’t training. This is a business,” she said. “These are actual jobs you’re performing. You’re not doing it to strengthen yourself for a job outside. This is a job inside.”

Karen Garnett, district director of the federal Department of Labor in Louisville, questions whether Hotel Louisville’s work-therapy program complies with U.S. labor laws. In some cases, such “trainees” are in fact employees entitled to the minimum wage and overtime, she said. “For the part of the hotel that’s a business entity, there may be some part that could be considered training, but it takes a minimum amount of training for some of this work.”

Manager Linda Stith went from being a homeless addict to helping run Hotel Louisville.
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

Wayside stands by its “training hotel” model, which its directors say teaches critical occupational and life skills to clients long removed from the labor force. “We have a very good rate of success for people who complete their programs,” Nina Moseley said. While Wayside does not track information on recovery participants (data collection has not been a priority), many graduates have gone on to work in local hotels, restaurants and hospitals. The hotel cannot afford to pay minimum wage to work-therapy participants, said Linda Stith, one of three general managers.

The commercial side of the hotel has subsidized Wayside’s charitable programs since the summer of 2011. Last year, net proceeds of approximately $258,000 — from hotel guests, banquets and restaurant income — funded not only the residential recovery program but also Wayside’s other facility: a traditional homeless shelter and soup kitchen on nearby Jefferson Street. Altogether, the organization’s annual budget for homeless services and recovery is about $3.4 million, much of which comes from government contracts and private donations. 

Business or charity or both

Still, not everyone knows the hotel’s backstory, and as its quality improved, Hotel Louisville began to draw patrons unfamiliar with Wayside. “You’d have guests come in. They’d see our clients and say, ‘This is a shelter!’ so I was constantly explaining, ‘This is more than (that). It’s a training hotel,’” general manager Stith said.

Wayside’s success, born of experimentation, has garnered the support of philanthropists and other nonprofits, as well as hospitality experts, local politicians, business leaders and scholars.

“Tim and Nina Moseley are walking saints,” said Keith Lermie, dean of the hospitality school at Louisville’s Sullivan University. “I’ve seen them do a very good job, and I’ve been in the hotel-restaurant business my whole life. There’s no one downtown providing a safe, clean room at ($49 a night, and) there are a lot of groups that couldn’t afford to have a banquet anywhere else.”

And in a climate of dwindling resources for the poor, Hotel Louisville is part of an entrepreneurial trend among social-services nonprofits. For example, Seattle-based FareStart, a recovery and job-training program for homeless and at-risk adults, generates 50 percent of its operating revenue from food-service enterprises staffed by client-trainees. In New York City, the supportive-housing provider Common Ground, which Nina Moseley cites as an early inspiration, covers a growing percentage of its budget with facility rentals and a tax-credit advisory business for nonprofit housing developers.

“The fact is, there are fewer dollars to go around,” said Brenda Rosen, Common Ground’s executive director. “There has to be other ways (besides government and foundation grants) to provide services, because the need just continues to grow.” The trick for groups like Common Ground, FareStart and Hotel Louisville, Rosen said, is to avoid putting business first.  

I was still under the impression that I was different. I wasn’t willing to identify with homeless women.

Manager and former client of Hotel Louisville

A new, professional identity

On the evening of Oct. 12, couples and families dressed to the nines — in gowns, platform heels, hats, suits and tuxedos — filed into Hotel Louisville for a fashion show and banquet on the second floor. It was the annual fundraising gala for a local African-American scholarship fund.

“We always have our gala here,” a well-coiffed woman said. She had no idea that the hotel was anything other than a hotel.

Three "recovery girls” — Pam Allen, Millie Morris and Ramonica Kellam — were on serving duty. Wearing tuxedo vests, they carried trays of drinks through the crowded ballroom, around chattering guests and the perimeter of the catwalk, to and from the kitchen.

Restaurant manager Kevin Nelson serves dinner at an evening banquet.
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

Dinner was served buffet style, and General Manager Kevin Nelson was among those dishing out hot, fragrant Southern food. Nelson, a single father with a bushy mustache and warm, polite manner, lives with his son and daughter in adjoining rooms of Hotel Louisville.

He had lost his job as a restaurant manager and fallen on hard times when he came to Wayside in 2011. “In my mind I was just going to work and get myself situated and then get another job somewhere else,” he said. “They were just trying to get the banquets going, and the kitchen and restaurant, and I had done this for close to 22 years, so in a weird way, it all worked out.”

Nelson has since shared duties with Linda Stith and Virginia Taylor, the other two general managers. Stith, a tall woman in a blazer and necktie, wears her brilliant red hair cropped short. Like Taylor, she is a recovering addict, though her history with Wayside may be singularly dramatic. In 2009, Stith attempted suicide by slitting her wrists and called the women’s shelter from the hospital. “Come on!” Taylor told her by phone. “We’ll send a cab.”

“I arrived at Wayside Christian Mission in a bloody robe and pair of flip-flops in January,” Stith said. “And I was still under the impression that I was different. I wasn’t willing to identify with homeless women.”

Stith and her roommate, Terry — now a live-in receptionist at Hotel Louisville — were among the first residents of the hotel. In those early months, receipts were handwritten and Wayside had no machine to process credit cards. They experimented with the prices for a room, which initially ranged from $120 — too high for the area, they concluded — down to $39, which was too cheap and drew troublesome guests.

Stith devoted herself to whatever the team needed: front desk, housekeeping, research. “None of us knew how to run a hotel, so I’d call (other places) and pretend to be a guest,” she said.

Barbara Carter, a slight woman with serious eyes and a deep voice, remembers those early days. When she moved into Hotel Louisville, she was freshly sober, after “doing the same thing for 30 years.” She spent 13 months in recovery and work therapy before finding her own apartment, and has since married, reconnected with her kids and found steady work as a McDonald’s shift manager.

“This program helped me in a lot of ways,” she said. “It helped me with my self-confidence. It helped me learn to be a responsible, productive member of society. Wayside — without them, I don’t know where I would be.”

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