Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Philadelphia has area hotels booked solid, which is why some South Jerseyans are cashing in by opening the doors of their home to complete strangers.
Chris Gehringer of Cherry Hill claims to have an “entrepreneurial spirit.” Cinnaminson’s Barbara Strauss calls herself a serial volunteer. And Denise Hollingsworth, who is already used to housing strangers, enjoys sharing the history of her adopted hometown of Burlington.
These three South Jersey residents may have different motivations, but what they have in common is a key role in the upcoming World Meeting of Families, which comes to Philadelphia on Sept. 22.
The event, started by Pope John Paul II in 1994, is held every three years and is the largest Catholic gathering of families in the world. This is the first time it will be held in the United States, and the week will culminate with Pope Francis’ first trip to the country. The papal mass on Sunday, Sept. 27 is expected to draw 1.5 million people.
All of those guests will need somewhere to stay, and that’s where people like Gehringer, Strauss and Hollingsworth come in. They are just a few of the many area residents offering rooms or their entire homes—for a price—to visitors from around the globe.
“I kept reading that they were in such dire need of housing,” Strauss says. “It’s not something I’ve ever done before, but this is such an amazing event and there’s such a need, so I said, ‘Why not? I’ll give it a try.’”
Strauss, a divorced mother of two adult daughters, lives alone and is offering her guestroom for up to two visitors at $400 a night. The guests will also have access to the kitchen and laundry room in her smoke-free house, which is three miles from the NJ Transit River Line and about 10 miles from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where many of the event’s activities will take place.
Strauss says she may even be able to drive her guests over to Philadelphia, as she will be attending the conference as a volunteer. She has given her time to a number of charitable organizations over the last several years—such as the USO, the MS Society and the Susan G. Komen Foundation—and has been approved for three events at the World Meeting of Families, including the papal mass.
“I volunteer all over the place,” says Strauss, who is Catholic but not a regular churchgoer. “I usually look for opportunities and I just couldn’t pass this one up.
“I’m just happy to be involved in the whole thing. [Pope Francis is] a very, very impressive man, no matter what religion you are. I think it’s an amazing event and great for the city of Philadelphia, great for people in general and great for me. I’m caught up in it and I have a lot of enthusiasm for it.”
Hollingsworth is similarly excited for the chance to host several guests, even though she won’t be attending the event herself. Her historic Burlington home—built in 1879—has six bedrooms, and Hollingsworth is offering three of them for the event. The largest one, available for $100 a night, is the lone bedroom on the third floor and has more privacy, while the other two are on the second floor and are listed at $50 and $70 per night.
With most of the major hotels in Philadelphia and South Jersey already booked for the week of the World Meeting of Families, Hollingsworth is offering an affordable alternative.
“This is something I can do and I don’t mind doing it,” she says. “It makes it more affordable for the average family. You don’t have to be an aristocrat with a lot of money to come over here and pay the full lodging cost for a hotel.
“Also, from a personal perspective I am always interested in different cultures. I’ve done a fair amount of travel and I tend to be open to people who come from different cultures, and I also feel like I can learn from them. It broadens my horizons and makes me a more tolerant and open person.”
Hollingsworth, an Atlanta native who moved to Burlington 10 years ago, is hoping to have her rooms booked by international travelers, who she feels will appreciate the history of the home and the town. Like Strauss, she will be remaining at home during their visit, but having strangers around is nothing new for Hollingsworth. She has often opened her home for historic tours, and she was also a foster parent for five years.
“People who are willing to open their homes to children they don’t know are not usually people who are obsessed with privacy and keeping strangers outside their home,” she says. “You’re already of a different mindset. So doing something like this isn’t a real reach for me, because I’m accustomed to opening up my home.”
Both Strauss and Hollingsworth are listing their rooms through Homestay.com, which connects travelers with hosts in more than 140 countries and is working with the organizers of the World Meeting of Families. There are listings on the website throughout the region, including South Jersey towns such as Moorestown, Mount Laurel and Voorhees.
Gehringer, however, is asking $750 a night for his four-bedroom Cherry Hill home listed through Craigslist. Located two blocks from Route 70, the house sleeps eight comfortably and is close driving distance to Philadelphia and PATCO. Gehringer and his family will not be staying home during the week.
“Since my parents and my wife’s parents both live nearby, it’s probably not much of a stretch for us to stay with them for three or five days,” he says. “So we figured, why not? Let’s give it a try. We’re not well-to-do people, so the opportunity to make a few hundred or even a thousand dollars would be quite helpful.”
Gehringer has rented out a condominium he owned in North Jersey, but never anything on a short-term basis like this. He plans on doing a background and credit check on potential guests.
“The other thing is because we’ll be so close when we’re not here, we’ll be able to check in on a frequent basis,” he says. “More importantly, whatever lease we have would have to be properly worded, because there could be complications and I want to make sure I’m protected. There are laws that protect renters, and I want to make sure they’re not too protected. I certainly don’t want anything where by law, they don’t have to get out of my house. And of course we’ll collect a security deposit, and that will probably be based on the number of people staying.”
Strauss and Hollingsworth are also cautious, but after going through background checks themselves to be considered as hosts, they are confident that Homestay will do the same for potential visitors.
“I work in law enforcement, so I’m comfortable with someone doing a background check on me,” says Hollingsworth, a deputy attorney general in Trenton. “I wouldn’t be able to have the position I have if I had a lot of skeletons I’m hiding.
“I’m encouraged by [the background checks], and I’m also a woman of faith. I’m not Catholic, so I have no connection to the Catholic Church. But I just believe that if I’m doing something good—and some people might think this is naïve—that God will look out for me. That has enabled me to be as open as I am. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take precaution. … My most valuable things are locked away, they’re never laying out in the open for someone to take. I’m not foolish about it. But I’m not afraid of someone just attacking me.”
Strauss has a similar mindset. “I guess there’s risk, but there’s risk no matter what you do,” she says. “There’s less risk with this, and I don’t want to live my life in a world where you can’t offer a kindness and you can’t open up your heart and open up your house, or you can’t offer somebody a ride or make somebody a sandwich. I know there are risks with all of that, and I’m careful about it, but I still do it.”
Of course, there are risks associated with the event itself, with so many people gathered in one spot. The city of Philadelphia started security planning for the pope’s visit more than a year ago.
“I’m hoping it’s uneventful in that regard and everyone can have a good time,” Hollingsworth says. “We need to highlight families and love, because that’s the baseline for communities. So we have to solidify that, and I think this conference is a good thing. If I can play a small role in that by offering my house, then so be it. That will be my small role.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (June, 2015).
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