Homeless shelter director has painful connection to his work

At first, Burt Rosen said he couldn’t stomach the thought of leading Knox Area Rescue Ministries, a homeless shelter in Tennessee.
Published: Sep. 30, 2022 at 8:00 AM HST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The old saying goes, if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. At first, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth for Burt Rosen.

When WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara visited Burt Rosen, the CEO of Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), a homeless shelter and ministry in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was obvious the saying rang true for him. “I love what I do. Wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else,” Burt beamed.

It was lunchtime and a long line of people eager for a meal snaked through KARM’s cafeteria, waiting their turn. Burt greeted each person at the counter and said, “I love the opportunity to pass a tray of food to someone who’s looking for a meal and I love even more getting to say ‘hello’ to everyone who comes through the line.”

However, Burt didn’t always feel that way. When he accepted the position at KARM 20 years ago, he was haunted by his own painful connection to homelessness, “I couldn’t look in the face of anybody who was coming through the doors. Every one of them morphed into the face of Matthew and I thought, ‘What have I done?’”

When lunch service ended, Burt’s daily ritual was just getting started. Every day he checks a Google Alert he created for his missing son, Matthew Rosen. Every day brings a little ray of optimism. “You just think, maybe today will be the day.”

Burt Rosen has never stopped searching for his missing son Matthew
Burt Rosen has never stopped searching for his missing son Matthew(Burt Rosen)

Burt and his wife Carolyn have been waiting for word of their missing son for 20 years. The day hasn’t come.

“He was kind, he was very comical, he was always cracking jokes, he was always making us laugh, he was always a straight A student. He always took care of his brother. He just had so much compassion. He was such a sweet boy,” Carolyn reflected about their first-born son.

So, what changed? Whatever it was, Burt said it happened when Matthew went to college: “He became more introverted, he became more silent with his emotions. You just get this intuitive sense as a parent, something is not right. The son that went off to college was not the son that came home. Matthew was diagnosed with being bipolar, he didn’t think he was. He was convinced that he didn’t need the medication.”

Burt and Carolyn said Matthew refused help and his behavior became toxic. That’s when they made the difficult choice to ask him to leave, “I can remember us asking him to leave and watching him with the roller board suitcase. Carolyn and I stood there at the door sobbing as we watched our kid walk down the street. What happened to our baby? How did this happen?”

Through occasional emails sent by Matthew, the Rosens learned their son was living on the streets of New York City.

Matthew was newly homeless when Burt was asked to lead KARM. How did he find the strength to say yes? “Somehow I had this sense that everything we had been through, including with Matthew, was now going to make a difference,” said Burt. “Maybe we can’t make a difference in the life of our own son, but maybe we can make a difference in the lives of the 400 plus or minus people who come into KARM every single night.”

“I can go to KARM or I can meet someone on the street and I can be friendly to him, if I can’t be friendly to my own son. So that’s what keeps me going,” Carolyn explained.

Burt officially retires on October 1, 2022. He’s already working with his wife on a new mission born when Burt asked himself, “There’s a plethora of websites out there that will help you find your child. But who will help the parents go through what they have to go through just to endure?”

Burt and Carolyn are counseling parents across the country who also have missing and homeless children.

Over Zoom, the Rosen’s met with Dennis and Debbie Hall. Their 38-year-old son Brandon disappeared within the last year.

“Part of what we want to do is be an encouragement to you and help you hold on to hope,” Burt told the Halls.

Hope is what Burt and Carolyn can give because hope is all they have. Hope that even if they never see their son again, there’s a reason for the journey.

“Somehow his disappearance and ending up homeless has allowed us to make a difference. All things can work together for good. Even pain, even loss. Picture your worst nightmare, your worst heartache, even that can work for good,” said Burt.

Burt and Carolyn started counseling other couples across the country and had plans to expand their help to siblings and other loved ones of missing people.