Standing for the Homeless

Graham Colton, W&L

Graham Colton, W&L


Washington and Lee University student Graham Colton served the homeless with the Gateway Center in Atlanta as part of the 2013 Shepherd Internship Program. Colton is an English and philosophy major in the Class of 2015.

You may be reading this because you were struck by my victorious pose. One would think that I’m celebrating homelessness or my own victories during the summer, or even shifting attention from the homeless to me.  I actually refuse to photograph the homeless (especially when portrayed as such), because doing so is exploitative and undermines their human dignity.  So I stand in for them, with my arms outstretched and my expression resolute, personifying their hard-fought victories over substance abuse, mental illness, and unemployment, all of which were addressed by my summer internship at the Gateway Center in Atlanta.  It is the gateway, as it were, to self-sufficiency.  As such, it aims to end homelessness in metropolitan Atlanta by providing the homeless with basic needs and with programs addressing some causes of homelessness, which bear repeating: substance abuse, mental illness, and unemployment.

As a result of my internship, I have gained many insights into understanding poverty in America. The single thing, however, that will stay with me for a very long period of time is that we shouldn’t judge those experiencing homelessness. Rather, we should recognize our common humanity and realize that in today’s world, we, too, are just a few bad choices away from poverty. In other words, without the extensive support systems that we have had, we would not be anywhere close to where we are today.

My supervisor uses the term “a person experiencing homelessness” rather than “a homeless person.” Though her term is admittedly cumbersome and sounds too politically correct, I have learned to replace “the homeless” with “those experiencing homelessness” in everyday conversation. My supervisor, who once experienced homelessness herself, knows all too well that homelessness does not define oneself, but instead it simply describes whether or not one holds property. In addition to holding property, many other traits define oneself. For some of the Gateway Center’s clients, instead of dehumanizing them by labeling them “the homeless,” I suggest that we call them “the meek”; “the friendly”; “the funny”; “the resilient”; or “the kind-hearted.”  Bad and good labels aside, my point remains: everyone deserves to be treated with human dignity, regardless of whether or not one rents or owns property. To realize that, and, as my supervisor often proselytizes, to treat everyone as if they were “angels unaware,” is for me to have learned something from this internship.

Although the Gateway Center is not a faith-based organization, many of its clients and staff pray to God. There is a chapel where religious services of all stripes are held.  Many clients explain that they are homeless because of “sinful” pasts.  Some say they joined gangs to replace a family that they never had.  Another client, a college-educated black man who claimed to have an IQ of 148, abused cocaine because of discriminatory hiring practices. Still others fell into depression because they overexerted themselves, at too young of an age, to support too many people. All of these clients, however, try to obey God today.

Religion helps the Gateway Center. Many homeless individuals fear judgment, or the scornful pastor telling them they’re going to hell. They’ve been told so more than once before, and many of them have already been through personal hells.  Furthermore, many homeless shelters and homeless services centers in Atlanta are solely faith-based.  As such, they scare away irreligious clients.

In many cases, a client’s personal relationship with God often replaces the vice that led to their homelessness. For instance, one client said that his spiritual high lasts longer and is ultimately more fulfilling than using drugs. The same client also said that the materialism of his former gang cannot compare to the “spiritual riches” that he now enjoys.

I interned at the Gateway Center because I take pleasure in helping those whom others don’t want to help. I have a heart for the preterite. I believe that today’s achievement-oriented culture fosters an unsustainable self-interestedness, so much so that we have forgotten that humanity will ultimately flourish when it learns not to receive, but to give.  I often remind myself to slow down and be mindful of the moment. To appreciate all that’s been given me, and to consider those who, as fate would have it, happened to be born to a vastly different household, in terms of both socioeconomic status and family dynamics. Then I try to give them opportunities that I have had and will continue to have because I was born where they were not. Having learned about social injustice, I now seek to redress it.

#essay