Chris Johnson: An eye-opening week in a hotel

April 20, 2014 

It's not often you fly first-class to go spend a week at a homeless shelter, but that's kinda what I did last week.

I say "kinda" because I only flew first-class because the airline overbooked my flight to Louisville, Ky., and then moved me from coach to first-class because there were no coach seats left when I went online to select my seats.

And I also say "kinda" because where I stayed in Louisville is a sort of cross between homeless shelter and hotel. It's Hotel Louisville, a transitional living facility where the homeless can enter a program in which they stay in rooms at the hotel for virtually nothing while also developing life skills and work ethic as they staff the hotel.

From the front desk to security to food service to cleaning crews, these folks take up more than half the hotel's 287 rooms. When they're not working to make your stay a pleasant one, they are your neighbors. In fact, because I had to change rooms due to a non-functioning lock, I'm pretty sure I was the only non-resident on my floor.

The hotel is an outreach of Wayside Christian Mission, which works to feed and shelter the city's homeless. They bought the hotel when it was foreclosed upon in 2009.

On the streets of Columbus, I've encountered many homeless folks. And I'm ashamed to say that I've almost always gone out of my way to avoid them. I've heard the money-begging stories of "I just need a few dollars to buy a bus ticket to see my family" or "I just need a couple dollars for gas to get home" too many times to buy them at face value.

But for seven days at Hotel Louisville, the dynamic changed. We chatted on elevators and said "hi" as we passed in hallways. We were neighbors. They asked for nothing.

Most were recovering addicts, collateral damage from America's ignorant and ineffective "war on drugs" that has only criminalized addiction and made the drug business more profitable while not so much as putting a dent in the problem.

Their faces were aged beyond their years, and every poor decision along life's highway has left lines upon their faces. Their eyes were a mix of trepidation and hope as they straddle that line between what

made them homeless and the promise of a better life.

They are black, white, male, female, elderly, middle-aged and young. Some you mistake for downtown businessmen until they get off on one of the resident floors and head for their room. Very few fit the homeless stereotype -- although one disheveled woman did get on an elevator with me and started mumbling something about "Einstein" and "kill". That was all I could make out as I wondered if it would be my last elevator ride.

Other than that, they smiled, said "thank you" and "please" and were polite and helpful. It made me wish I'd avoided fewer homeless folks in my life. It also made me wish there were more Hotel Louisvilles across America and more folks with a little compassion.

If only my first-class flight had been as nice as the hotel. My flight had the whiniest and grouchiest flight attendants I've ever seen. They argued with the co-pilot in front of me and trash-talked the attendants in the rear of the plane. Of course, they put on fake smiles that were more like grimaces as they served our drinks and lied to us about what a "pleasure" it was to have us on board, as if we couldn't hear their conversations from 6 feet away.

Turns out the "second-class" folks at my hotel outshone my "first-class" flight attendants. Guess when it comes to class, there's no first or second. You either got it, or you ain't.

-- Connect with Chris Johnson at

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