When Liz Clasen-Kelly ’00 accepted the role of executive director for the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte 2.5 years ago, the building at the main shelter was in disrepair. Without those “before photo” reminders when you walk in the shelter today, you almost wouldn’t believe it. There is light barreling in through floor-to-ceiling windows. There are happy, lime green chairs in the cafeteria. There are showers with shower curtains. There are beds that allow for privacy.
“The fundraising for that building – it was really a campaign about human dignity,” said Clasen-Kelly.
On the day the contractor needed the key to begin work, after all the men in the shelter had to be relocated, the team couldn’t find it at first as the building had not been locked in decades. It is truly a 24/7 operation, and Clasen-Kelly’s job is never done. But she felt called to this work, a calling that dates back to her years before and at Davidson.
“I had two significant religious experiences,” she said. “One was when my dad was living in Singapore, and I spent the summer before Davidson there. I saw Christianity from the minority perspective. It’s inspiring to see the counter-cultural aspect of Christianity that we don’t see in America. It led me to service.”
At Davidson, Clasen-Kelly held a Stapleton-Davidson internship with Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, an organization also committed to helping the homeless – this was the second religious experience. The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and Urban Ministry Center will merge later this year, with Clasen-Kelly at the helm.
One program during her student time at “the URB” was Room in the Inn, where organizations, mostly churches, would welcome homeless individuals into their spaces and feed them a warm meal. Clasen-Kelly pushed to start this program on Davidson’s campus. The program continues today at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, still with Davidson students leading the way.
“I learned from [Class of ’84 Davidson College Chaplain] Rob Spach a theology that can withstand the intensity of human suffering,” she said. “It allows me to continue in this work without losing hope. We’re so much more alike than we are different.”
Davidson wasn’t always easy for Clasen-Kelly, but it has helped her grow as a person and as a professional.
“A huge part of my experience was grappling with privilege and exclusivity—surrounded by people who are used to being the smartest ones in the room,” she said. “So for as much as I learned at Davidson, I’m having to unlearn a bit of it, too. That struggle is a really important part of my story. I know now that the answers are often held by clients, not by me. If you think you’re bringing the answer to the table, you’re missing the most impactful answers – we must listen to the people we’re serving.”
It may seem that running a men’s shelter and seeing the life events that land people at the shelter’s doors would tear a person down. Between the main shelter and the secondary location, there are 405 beds, and people are turned away just about every day.
Only a few weeks ago, an 18-year-old high senior was catching the school bus from the shelter. He has since moved to a youth-focused location that is more appropriate for his situation. There are also 70- and 80-year-old men who, for the first time in their lives, seek shelter.
The shelter’s goal is to move 30 men to housing each month. A fresh start. A next step. A feeling that, yes, there will be better days ahead.
Clasen-Kelly says, every single day, something breaks her heart, and something gives her hope.
“The day you are unable to feel both of those feelings is the day you need to do something else,” she said. “This fight is a fight about the inherent worth of every human being. My particular work is about the value of housing, but it’s all part of a wider fight to recognize the sacredness in each of us.”
Recommend a Game Changer
Do you know a member of the Davidson community — alumnus or alumna, faculty or staff member, current student — who has championed positive change — in family, community or world? If so, we invite you to nominate a game changer. Davidson will follow up to tell the story.