Richard Hyatt: A touching, teaching and loving place

February 6, 2014 

One cold spell was enough for Neil Richardson.

When another wave of sub-freezing nights came to town, it brought along some ice and snow, and the former car salesman was determined that another homeless person was not going to die.

When the car business dried up four or five years ago, Richardson followed his heart and answered the call to become the chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail. It is a job that allows him to not only save souls, but also to save lives.

While working with inmates inside the crowded jail, he began to see the problems these men and women faced once they were back outside.

"They were going back to the same people and places," he says, and those old habits and haunts were bringing them right back to jail.

Reality and compassion led Richardson and some like-minded friends to open The Safe House, a street ministry founded next to a bonding company across from the jail.

It was a small ministry with a large mission. Richardson, an ordained Baptist minister, wanted it to be a place where people who are no longer acceptable found acceptance.

For the past four years, their ministry has made coffee and soup and helped people find jobs without passing judgment on how they were dressed or how they smelled.

Along the way, he met Paul Garner, a veteran of the streets and a frequent inmate at the jail. When temperatures dipped to 12 degrees on Jan. 7, Garner froze to death on a cold vacant lot downtown.

So a few weeks later, with bitter cold again in the forecast and Garner's death on his heart, Richardson made sure The Safe House was open for business 24 hours a day. Beds were limited and when the snow and ice came along last week, more space was needed.

"I called Lamar Harper, the pastor at Rose Hill United Methodist Church," Richardson said. "He was talking about how we could work together that week and I asked him why didn't I bring our beds over to the church?"

The collaboration of Methodist and Baptist worked. Fifty-six people slept at the church every night that week.

"You should have heard the snoring," Richardson laughed.

Their hastily conceived partnership didn't end when the thermometer rose.

Two missions are about to become one, because on Tuesday morning, Richardson and Harper open the doors on The Safe House at Rose Hill Methodist.

The church will hold traditional services on Wednesday and Sunday just as it always has and in that same facility Richardson's people will provide resources to the homeless and others teetering on the fringes.

The Safe House crew won't miss a beat, he said. "We'll be doing what we've always done: touching, teaching and loving."

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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