Jennifer Lenoir Shepherd Alliance Internship Berea College ‘14 Summer 2012
At 4:30 AM, the young mother rouses herself from sleep to begin her day. Her three little ones are finally sleeping soundly nearby, but for this young mother, sleep eluded her all night long. The thick mat on the concrete floor was nowhere near as comfortable as the mattress she slept on growing up, but it was the fear and worry that kept her awake. At 25, with three children under the age of 7, how was she supposed to create a new life for herself? The young mother constantly berated herself for her choices…”I should have listened to my parents when they told me that he was no good” went her train of thought. Now, this mother had had enough of her boyfriend’s abuse, but she couldn’t bring herself to admit to her parents that they were right. With nowhere else to turn, she found herself homeless, with only the belongings she could carry—a stroller, a few clothes and diapers for each child, and the clothes on her back. After realizing that she could only survive a few days on the streets before being harassed by the local pimps and drug dealers trying to entice her to work for them, this mother found herself walking into the Gateway Center one morning.
After filling out paperwork with the staff, this young mother was able to get clean clothes from the Gateway Center clothing closet, and take a shower for the first time in a week. Volunteers on a mission trip were also there doing arts and crafts for mothers and children. For the first time in a while, the mother had a smile on her face as she watched her children laugh with the volunteers, make crafts, and color. Even though she didn’t participate in the craft, the mother was extremely grateful for the volunteers, as it gave her an hour to collect her thoughts while her children were occupied. That afternoon, the mom met with her case manager, who gently asked about her situation, genuinely trying to help. The case manager explained that it was her job to help this mom and her kids find a long-term transitional housing situation, but that the mother also needed to put forth effort. With a smile, the case manager informed the mother that those who took initiative to better their situation found themselves stable sooner.
It wasn’t until that evening that the doubts began creeping in again. What was she to do? She had absolutely no money to her name, and she lived in fear of going back to her boyfriend’s to gather any more belongings. Her heart sank as she realized she would no longer be able to receive Food Stamps or any other benefits because she did not have an address anymore. Her patterns of thinking mirrored this all night long, leaving her weary and downtrodden the next morning. As she arose, folding the sheets on her mat, the words of her case manager came back to her like a lightning bolt. “I can do this”, she decided. “I will put one foot in front of the other, and keep believing that God will get me and my children through this situation. We will not be homeless forever.”
This summer at the Gateway Center in Atlanta, Georgia, I had the experience of working with homeless people from all works of life. To protect the privacy of our clients, the scenario above has been fabricated for the purpose of this essay, but the situation is not unlike many of the women who find themselves at the Gateway Center. In addition to our Women and Children’s Center, Gateway also has residential programs for 265 men. Each program has a specific purpose, directed towards different sectors of the homeless population—ranging from a 2-week stabilization program, education, training, and employment dorms, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health support, and a 2-year program for homeless veterans.
I had the opportunity to interact with clients on a daily basis, and each story was different from the last. No two individuals had the same journey that led them to their homeless situation. I worked the clothing closet anytime that our regular volunteer could not be there, and I have never seen such gratitude for just a simple, used pair of clothes. It also made me aware of just how much I took my belongings for granted. For example, socks are a precious commodity among the homeless population, as they are hard to find and hold onto, but the majority of us put on a clean pair of socks daily and don’t think twice about it.
The majority of my internship at the Gateway Center was spent working with the Volunteer Coordinator to prepare for volunteer groups. With it being summer, we hosted several church groups on mission trips to Metro Atlanta, as well as individuals, corporations, schools, and local business volunteers. Every day held something new, as each volunteer came with their own preconceived notions of what homeless people are like in Metro Atlanta. I loved being able to share stories and statistics with the groups and watch their demeanor and attitude towards homeless people change. Instead of stereotyping them as a subpar social class, volunteers began to see homeless people as people who needed love and compassion.
This summer I also had the opportunity to shadow at the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless, Central Outreach and Advocacy, and interact with homeless individuals at Gateway in numerous capacities. However, I will forever remember the joy on the mother’s face when I pampered her by painting her fingernails, the children’s excitement when I set up for Art Time, and the look of gratitude when I handed the older gentleman a clean pair of socks. During my time at Gateway I was able to give of myself to help others feel human again, and knowing that makes me excited to finish school and pursue a career devoted to working with those that society has forgotten about.