Day 6

It rained that night at Elizabeth’s.

“Yes!” Jun said, a triumphant smile spreading over his face. “I wanted this to happen!”

If looks could kill, Jun would have been facing a firing squad.

There was a sense of accomplishment the morning of our final day of homelessness. Jun handed each of us a toothbrush and toothpaste he’d stashed in his bag.

That green toothbrush was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

That day, we worked with the Mad-Housers, building part of a hut. We were exhausted to the point of collapse, but it was nice to be a part of the organization that gave people like Joe safety and shelter.

And at 4 PM that day, I had a home again.

I promised myself a lot of things that week. That I would stop taking showers for granted. That I would appreciate my temperature controlled dorm room and fluffy mattress. That I would never complain about Lils, because even our less-than-inspired dining hall food sounded better than eating Kroger peanut butter ever again.

But I know that’s not true. I know I’m going to complain about Lils, and how my bed isn’t as comfortable as the one back home. How it’s so annoying that it’s raining when I have to walk across campus for class or that my shower only has lukewarm water.

Because life goes on.

But here’s a promise I will make.

I promise to stop letting homelessness be someone else’s problem. I promise to not let the complexity of the issue scare me away from attempting to find a solution.

I promise to advocate for the less fortunate. To give a voice to the people who’ve been told they cannot have one because they don’t have a roof over their heads. To remain educated about issues of social justice. To vote responsibly. To vote always.

I promise to try to never burn bridges, and to forgive those who did. To have love in my heart for those who feel as though no one would care if they died. To hold off on my judgement of those who have fallen upon hard times, for I do not know their story. To reject the stereotypes. To stop letting the assumptions of society influence my own view of right and wrong.

I learned a lot about the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, as well as the amount of compassion I found in this seemingly ugly world. About how hard it is to be homeless, and how hard it is to get out of it due to the systematic oppression that is so prevalent yet so ignored.

This blog is titled 500 shades of homelessness because each person experiencing homelessness has a different story. And while there is no cure for this monstrous cancer in the foreseeable future, we can take the web apart one strand at a time.

To all the beautiful people I met this week, you’ve changed my whole life. I will never forget you.

And to all the beautiful people who have made it to the end of this blog, I hope it made you think, because that’s all I can really ask for. I implore you, don’t stop after reading this. Do something, anything.

Maybe one day, it’ll be enough.


Day 5

That night we each took shifts to watch over the men sleeping at Central. I was up at 3AM with Mehtab and Jun, who’d stayed from his shift in order to reflect on the experience thus far.

That morning we vacated the shelter around 7AM, heading the the Shrine of Immaculate Conception, to hand out sack breakfasts. There were a bunch of leftover sack lunches from Central, so we took them in a box and handed them out to the people we saw slowly waking up on the steps of the church, on the ground by the park, and on the benches.

“Bless your beautiful souls.”

And once we finished handing them out, the group began an impromptu clean up of the area, picking up the trash littering the sidewalk.

I loved the proactive quality of this group. No one ever had to tell them to do something. If they say something that needed doing, they just did it. They’re the kind of people that were going to elicit real change in the world, and it was an honor to go on this trip with them.

They’re also the brave souls that cleaned the bathrooms at the church. Selaem, Mihir, and Kathy, I have so much respect for you guys.

Mira, Mehtab and I handed out the bagged lunches and coffee. I was starting to see a lot of familiar faces from our earlier stops, which both excited and saddened me.

All I wanted was for these people to never need our services again.

All I wanted was for them to go home.

To have a home.

Some people smiled, others simply took their food and went on their way. And yet some others had gushing gratitude for us.

“Good morning! Here’s a lunch and some coffee!”

“Wow, are you an angel?”

“No sir, just a volunteer!”

We had plenty of lunches and many people came back for seconds and thirds At least hunger doesn’t seem to be an issue in this city that seems to rain free food.

From the church, we walked down to Central Park (yes apparently there is one in Atlanta) to an event with Church on the Street. Church on the Street is exactly what it sounds like; a mobile church trying to lessen the divide between the fortunate and the less fortunate.

That day’s event was “Art in the Park” where people from all walks of life came together to create chalk drawings on a small corner of the park. There’s something about art that pulls people together and allows them to open up to one another.

They also had cake.

One of the church’s main focuses was to provide a safe place and rehabilitation for women who had been victimized by human trafficking.

Atlanta is home to one of the largest sex trafficking rings in the country. It’s gotten to the point where many airlines train their flight attendants to lookout for signs of a trafficked child. But pimps have gotten really good at keeping things under wraps, drugging women so that they forget their pain.

Furthermore, children are not the only ones being trafficked. Everyone can sympathize with that blonde 15 year old girl who ran away from home and got in with the wrong crowd. But what about the 35-40 year old women who have been in the ring for years? No one’s looking for them anymore.

Sometimes these girls don’t want to be rescued. There was a girl who came running to the church, bruised and beaten up, swearing she was done. Less than an hour later, she was back with her pimp because she needed the drugs. This happened two more times.

She’s dead now. Crack overdose.

“You just don’t care about anything else. All you can think about is making enough cash, getting to the dope guy, and getting high. For these women, they’re in so much pain that they simply lose the will to live. They stop looking both ways before crossing the street. They don’t eat or sleep. They live for the high. And without the high there’s no point in living.”

It’s hard to see the point in living when no one cares whether or not you wake up in the morning.

It’s not sleeping outside that’s the hardest thing about being homeless. Nor is it the miles of walking or the lack of food and hygiene. One can get used to all of these things. It’s being unloved and forgotten that’s hard.

And that never goes away.

We left Central Park, and made our way up to Covenant Community. It’s a rehab facility, not affiliated with Covenant House in any way. Here we met with a group of guys who were battling addiction. Some had just celebrated six months sober, and others had just joined. We asked them about their experiences with drugs and homelessness, and their responses were brutally honest.

“So why did you choose homelessness?”

“A lot of kids take to the streets due to the situation at home.”

“But how could being at home be worse than being on the streets?”

“I watched my dad beat up on my mom for seven years. He beat up on me too, but it was my mom that eventually pushed me out.”

Another guy admitted that the streets just had less responsibility. There he could do as many drugs as he wanted and he had to answer to no one. Yet another said he’d thought he found love and acceptance with his “boys” on the street. When he realized that they didn’t really care about him and just liked to smoke with him, he was already in too deep.

“The thing with addiction is that a good support system can make all the difference. But because I had swindled money from everyone I cared about for drugs, and taken advantage of people that truly loved me, I was eventually left with no one.”

Yet another said he’d pissed some people off with his behavior, and didn’t want to take chances and be a sitting duck.

“I’d much rather be freezing my ass off in the cold and watching my back, you know what I’m saying? If people know where you are, there’s a good chance you wake up without a finger. Or maybe you don’t wake up at all.”

“Prison made things hard for me. I went because I was a dealer, but when I got out I couldn’t get a job because of that little box you gotta mark declaring yourself as a felon. So I found my place on the streets right where I left off. Dope took away my shitty reality.”

But every single one of them was in that room because they wanted to get better. And I had tremendous respect for them because of it. And because of their experiences, they’re all empowered to help others wandering down the same path. When we asked them for advice, they had one resounding message.

“Don’t do drugs to begin with, but if you do get stuck in the cycle of addiction, realize that there is help available, and if you have no one, we’ll help you through it.”

“You don’t need to go to the streets for acceptance. You’ve got it with us.”



Day 4

We woke up luxuriously late that morning, rolling out of bed at 9AM. Jon, one of the more permanent volunteers (and a person experiencing homelessness himself) had taken us out into the city to see some of the places people sleep at night. He described people huddled up in the shade of parks, parking lots and tunnels, and how the effects of winter are devastating for most of the unfortunate souls stuck in the cold.

That day we were headed to the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, a shelter better known as Peachtree & Pine. Word on the street (literally) was that it was not the most pleasant place in the world.

“Y’all are headed to P&P? Y’all be careful now.”

“I’d rather sleep outside than go in there. All sorts of shit be going down.”

“Don’t go anywhere alone. Especially the women. Stick together in there.”

We were understandably apprehensive as we approached the old, beige building. All sorts of shady characters where lined up on the outside, and we all unconsciously stuck closer together as we walked around the building to the entrance.

The building smelled faintly of urine at first, the smell getting stronger the deeper you went in. The paint was peeling from the walls, and the waiting area was full of people waiting for services. P&P provides homelessness verification letters, basic check ups, crisis management, and individual case help, in addition to being a shelter for men, women and children.

They directed us  to the rooftop garden where we were going to be working, turning the soil and weeding the beds. As Joanie explained to us, there was no shortage of food for the homeless in Atlanta, but there was a shortage of nutritious food. P&P tried to remedy that by serving fresh vegetables from the garden.

When we were up there, we finally met some college students our age, who were doing an Alternate Spring Break as well. They were from Boston University, and we enjoyed the change in company.

While I was up on the roof I noticed the layout of Atlanta for the first time. The skyscrapers surrounding the decrepit shelter seemed to have a function other than to look nice.

The poverty-stricken and the privileged are physically separated by the height of these buildings, with the rich quite literally placed above the poor. The ones in the skyscrapers and penthouses can choose to look out across the city instead of down at the down-trodden, consciously or unconsciously ignoring the fact that there’s an entire world of people struggling to survive at their feet.

I’ve always loved skyscrapers, and the bird’s eye view it provided. I never thought to look down at the world it stepped on.

For lunch we all sat down with Joanie and had a discussion about the issue of poverty and how P&P comes into play.

Peachtree & Pine is what’s known as a low barrier shelter. They only require a TB test, which can be done on site. It’s the last resort option for most people; it’s where they go when they can’t take the cold anymore.

There was a man who came in because he was a felon and thus could not find a job. The reason he was convicted was that he knowingly wrote a bad check in order to get arrested. Prison was access to shelter and at least two meals a day. But now that he’s out, he’s not able to find a job due to his status as an “offender.” And at that point, Peachtree & Pine is the only place left to go.

We’d heard rumors that it was closing, but when we asked Joanie, she laughed and said, “Well wouldn’t Mayor Reed want that!”

P&P is entirely funded by donations and run by volunteers. Their government funding has been cut completely and the city of Atlanta was actually working to shut the facility down completely. Joanie admitted that the conditions of the shelter were problematic; housing 500 men in one poorly renovated building is no joke.

“We have problems, but we’re not going to be able to improve our programs without funding. And without improving our programs, we can’t get funding. It’s a vicious cycle.”

It’s her belief that the government wants the city to be torn down because of its less than affluent appearance. The rundown building with its congregation of people experiencing homelessness right outside right at the heart of downtown Atlanta, is a problem for making a profit.

“Renovating would fix that problem. If only we had a bit of funding…”

Where is the mayor expecting the hundreds of people that are housed here to go? It’s already illegal to sleep outside. The rest of the shelters are at full capacity. Does he just expect these people to disappear?

Sweeping the crumbs under the rug only attracts more ants. Don’t let this be someone else’s problem. I urge you to advocate for Peachtree & Pine! Send letters, overwhelming the mayor’s office with our collective voices. Volunteer there, or donate whenever and whatever you can. These people deserve a place to sleep at night, and whatever the situation of P&P may be right now, the people who work there are incredibly passionate and will be able to turn it all around with a bit of extra money.

After bidding Joanie goodbye and good luck, we headed off to Central Night Shelter, which was right above the OAC. Central is a winter shelter, providing shelter for the men in the program from November to April.

Before dinner, one of the residents volunteered to say grace. He thanked God for the food on the table, a roof over his head and the strength required to work through these trying times. It amazed me how he was still able to count his blessings, even though he was in what many would see as a hopeless situation.

I sat with a group of jovial looking men at dinner. “So what are you studying at Emory?” The man in front of me had deep set eyes and a kind smile.

“Neuroscience. I want to be a doctor.”

“Do you now? That’s wonderful. We need so many more women doctors in the world. Especially women doctors with a heart.” I laughed.

“How do you know I have a heart, sir?”

“Because you’re sitting here, talking to me. No one’s talked to me like this all day.”

Before I went on the trip, “the homeless” were just a group of unidentified, faceless figures. I could feel sorry for them superficially, but I couldn’t be bothered with doing more than volunteering at a soup kitchen once in a while.

But now I see  real people. I hear their voices in my head, telling their stories. I see their sad eyes, imprinted on my eyelids, and I will never forget their smiles.

This trip humanized the homeless.

And to begin to fix this problem, society needs to do the same.

Day 3

That night, Mehtab, Stanley and I went dumpster diving.

Not in the traditional sense of course, but we did see a house with a couch and a mattress topper outside on their sidewalk on Elizabeth’s street.

Stanley grabbed the mattress topper first. It was torn, with unidentified stains and leaves all over it. We stared at him, and he shrugged.

“I’d rather be warm than clean.”

Mehtab and I looked at each other, grinned guiltily and ran up to the couch. We grabbed the seat cushions and came back to the backyard with our spoils.

“Y’all are gross,” Kelly remarked.

But it made all the difference. I found a way to curl up onto the cushion to avoid most of my body touching the ground, and with my jacket and blanket, I was able to evade the most biting part of the cold.

That morning we slung our trash bags over our shoulders and filed out of the backyard. The place where we were headed was over ten miles away, so Kathy and Jun indulged in Ubers for our tired legs.

Our destination used to be a place called Fun Town. Sixty years ago, it was an all-white amusement park, but when segregation was outlawed and Six Flags was built, Fun Town went out of business.

Today, Fun Town is better known as Stewart Camp. It’s a community of 10 cinderblock huts, courtesy of an organization known as Mad-Housers. These tiny huts house people who otherwise would be out on the streets. Fun Town is a private property, but no one’s really sure who owns it, and the police have decided to allow the people squatting on the land to stay there for now.

We were going down there to see Joe, Elizabeth’s old friend. He lives in a Mad-Houser hut in the middle of the camp, and had been there for about 20 years.

Joe is special. He’s got a semi-toothless smile, and he’s always laughing at something. He even punctuates sad stories with a chuckle, as though laughing will somehow ease the pain for himself and his listeners. And he’s figured out the whole living outside thing, with an ingenious heating system for the winter and a tarp to catch the rainwater. It was this tarp that was falling apart, and we were there to help him attach a new one to the trees.

As Taseen precariously perched on the rickety ladder to cut the rope from the trees, I spotted Joe’s friend who had come there to meet us. Joe had introduced him as an “international man,” who spoke German, French and English. His name is Etienne, and in him I found a kindred spirit.

I sidled up to him shyly and said, “I heard you speak French?”

Bien sur, mademoiselle.” Indeed, ma’am.

“I speak a little bit. I learned in high school.” A smile spread across his previously serious face as we began to talk. He was born on the Ivory Coast in Africa, and traveled to Germany to study nursing. He had only three months left before graduation when he came to America, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. Here he opened a restaurant and was doing very well until he got robbed. Not once or twice, but four times, by the same group of teenagers.

“I don’t blame them though. It’s okay. Kids will be kids.”

Kids being kids cost him everything.

“My little brother is my life. I would do anything for him. If I needed to cut off an arm for him, I wouldn’t even think about it. But my family is still in Africa. I don’t feel like talking to them because they expected me to be the successful one. I don’t want to call them and tell them I’m not doing well.”

He loved the fact that I was from California.

“That’s my dream place! One day I want to bring my whole family there and live by the beach. The weather, the sunlight, Oh la, la.

I laughed. “I hope one day I’ll see you there, Etienne.”

“Mademoiselle, if you truly mean that, you will one day.”

I did. I do.

When we bid him goodbye, he clasped my hand and looked at me with his sad eyes.

Merci beaucoup pour votre gentillesse. A bientot dans Californie.” Thank you for your kindness. See you in California soon.

We were definitely in “the hood” as we walked to Gateway, another homeless shelter in Atlanta. The whole neighborhood was peppered with obscene graffiti, boarded up houses, and barbed wire, and I clung to my trash bag just a little tighter as a man leered at me from the sidewalk.  

Gateway also provides transitional housing and services to move people out of the state of homelessness. At night it serves as a men’s shelter, but during the day they serve meals, provide medical services and showers. The woman who runs it is Bec, and her pink hair perfectly matches her spectacularly fiery personality, but the woman she introduced us to had a story I’ll never forget.

Her parents died when she was a kid, so she was bounced around family homes until her aunt and uncle abused her, emotionally, verbally and sexually.

At 12, she gave birth to a child of rape.

At 15 she had committed 36 misdemeanors and 17 felonies.

At 17 she was married and had a child on the way.

It was this child that encouraged her to turn her life around. She got a degree and a stable job, and things were good for a while.

Then she began hearing voices, and no one believed her nor cared when she complained.

So she self-medicated, first with Xanax, then powder cocaine, and then crack. And the drugs caused her to spiral down towards rock bottom, when ultimately someone tried to kill her. When she was high, they told her she had snakes coming out of her arms. She slit her wrists in order to get them out, and someone told her daughter that her mother was dead.

And that was when she got her life together for good. She became a woman of faith, telling her story at meetings, conferences and homeless facilities. Strength seemed to radiate from her very being, and I couldn’t begin to understand everything she’d been through.

Before she sent us on our way, Bec told us to ask each person we encountered whether or not they had any words of wisdom for us. Sealed, Mehtab, and I were assigned to work at the nail clinic, where we massaged people’s hands and painted their nails. The women loved getting bright colors on their fingers, and even the guys indulged in a clear coat to protect their nails from the grime.

My favorite client was a man by the name of Robert Rice. I disclose his name because he told me he’s writing a book about his experience. Look out for it, I’m sure it’ll be wonderful.

We talked for about an hour. He’s an Atlanta native. An addict who lost everything. A man trying to get his life back on track. 

When I finished his manicure, he got up, only to come back a few minutes later with a water bottle in his hand.

“I have nothing, but I wanted to thank you for the kindness you showed me. You made me feel like a human again, and for that I’m forever grateful.”

“Oh Robert, this is too much. You take it.”

“No no, please, I insist. You have a long journey ahead of you.” He tipped his hat to me. “Stay beautiful, queen.”

With the rest of my clients, I did as Bec had asked.

“So do you have any words of wisdom for me?”

“Don’t do drugs. Not even weed. And especially not heroin. Just don’t. Don’t do it.”

“Tell your parents you love them every day. They kept you off these streets.”

“Don’t burn bridges; you never know when you’re going to need someone.”

“If you can’t find toothpaste, just rub some salt on your teeth.”

“Just because you’re drunk doesn’t mean you can sleep with your best friend’s boyfriend.”

“Don’t be walking around like a duck with your pants on the ground!!!”

Gateway was one of my favorite experiences. Something about massaging a person’s hand really gets them talking and all I had to ask was, “so are you from the ATL originally?” for the flood gates to open.

I kept the bottle Robert gave me. It’s cliche, but it really is the ones with the least that give the most.

From Gateway, we headed to Safe House, another homeless shelter. We were all incredibly excited to be sleeping inside that night, with a soft bed and a temperature controlled room. But before we could indulge in this incredible privilege, we had to work for it. We served dinner to the Safe House guests, and the proceeded to grab a plate and dine with them.

The first person I spotted was the man with dreadlocks from the OAC. He smiled at me in recognition, but he was done with his meal before I even had a chance to talk to him.

The woman I had dinner with had a gorgeous smile and the same hairstyle as Suzanne in Orange is the New Black. Her name is Chrissy, and she’s a cosmetologist and aesthetician.

“Oh, aren’t you just gorgeous?” She gushed. “You’ve got such an intoxicating look, you know? Like I could get all the pleasure of a margarita on the rocks just by looking at you!”

She had a college degree, and used to have a business before her office was raided and her equipment stolen.

“I wouldn’t be in this position if I had saved some of my money, but you know how young people are! They just spend spend spend on Mercedes Benzes, lots of alcohol and pretty clothes.”

When I told her about our project, she began to cry. I ran my hand over her back helplessly as she sobbed for a few moments before pulling herself together.

“I’m sorry it’s just I don’t want you to ever be in this situation. No one should ever be. It’s horrible, and since I’ve become homeless, I’ve never cried about it, until now.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay. You can cry. It’ll be okay.”

I wish I could believe that myself.

Day 1

The white Emory van pulled into the circle by the DUC at around 8AM on Sunday morning. Seven strangers slowly piled in, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. I didn’t know any of them, but I was about to spend the most intense week of my life by their side. 

Excited introductions were made as we made our way to our first stop. It was a very diverse group of students, with a wide range of ages, states of origin, birthplaces and ethnicities. It seems like a lifetime ago that we sat in that smelly van. We’ve all grown a lot since then.

We were each handed a crisp $5 bill, and let loose in Atlanta’s semi-famous “Murder Kroger.” Clutching the $5 that would turn into our lifeline for the week, we walked in together, and made a beeline to the peanut butter aisle.

I had no idea peanut butter was so expensive! Or that Nutella was a superior good, at double the price. I decided to pick up a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, and a pack of gum so I wouldn’t choke on my own breath. Many went the same route, Mehtab and Mihir going so far as to pick up toothpaste. At the counter, I realized I’d picked up one too many of the small bottles of peanut butter, asking the cashier to put it back while staring forlornly at the crumpled $5 bill in my hand. The man behind me stopped her quickly and said, “Here, I got it.”

It was a taste of a kindness that we wouldn’t see much for the rest of the week, and even as I explained our project to him, he looked at me worriedly and said, “you’re still going to be homeless though, are you sure you couldn’t use that extra bottle?”

 We all squeezed back into the van, heading for a backyard farm put together by the Paideia School, a charter school in Atlanta. I use the term backyard loosely; it went on for acres. We planted peas and weeded beds, and our efforts contributed to a harvest that provides about 2000 pounds of food to soup kitchens and food pantries in Atlanta per year.

For me, the trip really began that night at the Covenant House, a transitional facility for youths aged 18-21. They attempt to save these young adults from sex trafficking rings, drug operations, and directly from the streets. They also have crisis counseling and outreach programs for at risk youths in the area. 

We made pizza, mashed potatoes, salad and I helped make some world-class brownies that were definitely the favorite part of the meal. It was one of our first bonding activities as a group, and I could see how well we gelled together. 

Serving the dinner and eating with the residents was simultaneously very familiar and very strange. In retrospect, Covenant House was quite unlike most places we worked at that week because there was a sense of hope. The residents were jovial and happy, cracking jokes and messing around with one another. There were visible cliques, and the sexual tension was tangible. If I hadn’t known the context of the location, I’d have guessed we were sitting in a high school cafeteria or a college dining hall.

And yet, this same, familiar youthful exuberance was the hardest for me to difest. I had known that these people would be young but it still struck me just how young they were, and how much they had already suffered. We might be sharing a space and a meal at that moment, but our worlds couldn’t have been on more separate planes. 

As a sociology student, I’ve been taught to notice the composition of my space, but it didn’t take an expert to see that there was an overwhelming majority of black males sitting in the dining room. It was a disparity that I noticed just about everywhere that week.

One of the residents instantly won our hearts. He was loud and funny and so full of life, sitting smack in the middle of the room and giving his friends a hard time. He was incredibly witty, and comebacks seemed to fly out of his mouth before I’d even had time to digest what was being said. Once again, his happiness and obvious intelligence made for a poignant juxtaposition with his current situation, and I remember thinking how I’d love to have a college class with this kid and hoping that someone someday would have the opportunity to. 

I was sitting with two guys who were messing around with each other as guys are apt to do. Slowly, the slurs got racial, and while I knew they were joking, I had a feeling the comments were backed by personal experience.

“I wouldn’t ever get arrested yo, I run like Usain Bolt.”

“But the cops gonna shoot at you first!”

“Why the f**k would they do that”

“Because those stupid ass dreads”

“You’re the one that’s Jamaican though!”

“You a dark-skinned ni**a. You really think they gonna shoot my lightskinned ass when you look more black?”

“You know, they’re going to end up putting bullets in both of us. You’re joining me up there in hell anyway!”

They were laughing the whole time, but I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along.

After Covenant House, we dropped the van off at Emory, put all of our precious belongings in giant trash bags, and trudged up to Elizabeth’s house. She was our mentor of sorts, and we’d be sleeping in her backyard for three of the five nights. It was three miles away, and Jun, our lead, had us walking in circles for a good 20 minutes while he figured out the map. When we got there an hour and a half later, we were exhausted and ready for bed.


Day 2

That night was cold.

The kind of cold that cuts cleanly into the marrow of the bone, settling in for a long stay. Our teeth chattered audibly, and I spent the whole night wracked with violent shivers, attempting to keep the icy frigidity at bay. All night I begged for sleep to come, curled up in an impossibly small ball, thinking resolutely of a warm day at the beach hoping the cold would somehow miraculously cease.

Elizabeth’s backyard had an awning under which we slept, and under the awning was a rough gravel that poked at our backs the entire night. Pain is a brain stimulant a million times stronger than coffee, and so none of us slept a wink. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for the alarm that went off at 6 AM, signaling the end of the night.

It was a somber 5 mile walk to the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center (OAC). In our current state of exhaustion, the black trash bags seemed significantly heavier on our backs than they were the previous night.

But while walking through the city, my groggy mind picked up on something. I have an appetite for big cities that was voracious and even in my sleep-deprived state, I could tell that something was missing.

Atlanta is beautiful. The overpasses we trekked under were donned with the most vibrant street art, plastered across the grimy walls in a breathtaking act of defiance. We passed a memorable piece with a huge “CANCER IS BEATABLE” sprawled over it in a gold that seemed to inspire hope in those who saw it. The city’s life force is in the art, no doubt.

But as a California native in love with San Francisco, I wondered where the cultural vibrance was. Where were the street performers and roadside stalls? The caricature artists and landscape painters? And while I know every city is different in the way it portrays its diversity and pride, I always thought these would be a constant, if only because exploiting tourists seemed like a good business model. 

I didn’t find out until later that Atlanta had outlawed street performers because it looked too much like panhandling, which was unattractive to tourists. The main thing that endeared me to a city was actually seen as something negative by Atlanta’s government. Go figure.

Anyway, once we got to the OAC, we met with Kimberly, the wonderful woman who is the Executive Director and part of the backbone that keeps the organization going. She explained to us that the OAC provides many essential services to people experiencing homelessness, such as help in obtaining ID cards, job readiness training, and general advocacy.

I had no IDEA how big a deal ID cards are. Not having proper identification bars people from obtaining a job, housing and basic healthcare.

To get an ID, you need your birth certificate and a Social Security card.

But in order to get either of those things, you need ID.


I met so many people whose obtainment of an ID card was a ticket to a better life. But because they didn’t exactly have a safe place store their documents, it was close to impossible for them to get one. To make matters worse, if stopped by a police officer asked for ID, failure to present a government-issued form of identification can result in an arrest and detainment for up to 72 hours. In that time, all documents are confiscated and often not returned, so the process begins from square one.

I wondered if there were racist undertones in this law. What proportion of the stops made are to people of color? I didn’t think the OAC would have data on the question so I didn’t ask, but it was a question at the back of my mind for most of this trip. One thing was certain; I could count the number of white folks standing in line for services on my fingers.

I first worked at the art center. Art is a sort of universal medium, with no language barriers or socioeconomic differences or varying degrees of artistic ability. 

One of the men in the room had a very hard face. His eyes were a striking blue, his hair was in a tangled mat of dreadlocks and he struck a tall and imposing figure. I was slightly intimidated by the intensity of his gaze as I sat opposite from him, but then when I cracked a joke, he looked at me and laughed.

It was a loud and booming laugh that seemed to fill the room with its happy glow. He had a wide grin that spread across his face in an almost boyish way, and his intense blue eyes twinkled with a new light.

It was the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.

I also worked in intake for a bit, and I met Hannah, one of the women who helped with providing some of the crisis management services. We met with a homeless man who needed a homelessness verification letter (HLV) in order to stay at the Salvation Army. His dark eyes were so sad, all I wanted to do was hold his hand and let him know it’d be okay even though I wasn’t sure if it would be. 

We met with people with college degrees and previously steady jobs before some stroke of misfortune that left them hungry, homeless, and alone. One woman had been bitten by a spider, and her body had a horrible reaction to it. The doctors could not figure out what was wrong, and by the time she was diagnosed, she was permanently paralyzed on her left side.

Seriously? A spider bite?

The biggest thing I took away from the OAC is that, in short, shit happens and it happens to EVERYONE. Even a degree doesn’t necessarily keep you off the streets. And people who don’t have a safety net or a strong support system when something goes wrong are the ones affected the most. 

By the end of our shift at 1 PM, we were hardly awake, so Jun and Cathy took us to Centennial Park, where we laid our blankets out on the grass. Before we could go to sleep, however, we were approached by a curious man. 

“What are y’all doing? Are you with a group?”

We explained our project, and he smiled.

“That’s cool you guys. I’m homeless, myself. I was taking a shower at a shelter, and someone stole my documents, and cuz I was born in Illinois, it’s taking weeks to get my birth certificate for my ID.”

“How long has it been?”

“Seven weeks. I want to get my life on track, but I can’t get a job without it.”

It was so interesting how we were just learning about the importance of ID and here was a real life example of the reach of this systemic problem.

Before we could contemplate it too much, however, we fell asleep.

I was rudely awoken by a gruff voice.

“‘Scuse me miss. What’s going on here?”

I opened my eyes to a cop in my face. I immediately sat up, my heart beating 100 miles per hour.

“I’m sorry officer. We haven’t slept all night and so we just took a nap here.” I then explained our project to him, and he looked at me skeptically.

“Okay. Y’all will need to get up though. We don’t want to be encouraging this sort of thing.”

The comment stung. I looked at him right in the eye and asked, “What sort of thing?”

He looked slightly abashed as he said, “Sleeping on this property. People get the wrong idea.”

Centennial Park is a public property, and I had a feeling that if we were all in cute sundresses and polo shirts, we would have been left alone. We looked quite homeless, with our trash bags and day old clothes, and they didn’t want to encourage homeless people sleeping out in the open for everyone to see.

People experiencing homelessness, with nowhere to go, doing nothing but sleeping in a space created for the public, in broad daylight. What a scandal.

God forbid a tourist walk by and see someone taking a nap on a park bench.

Once we were run off the park by the cops, we were picked up by Covenant House’s Outreach bus. We were going to go to different areas where at risk youths were known to live and hand out hygiene kits.

The first place we drove is called the “Bridge to Nowhere.” It’s basically a half-destroyed bridge that ends in a 50 foot drop, and a lot of people experiencing homelessness live under it. It’s also a huge heroin hub, and Frederick, our tour guide and driver forbade us from going under the bridge to check it out.

There were used ramen packets, ripped up shirts, and empty syringes lying around at the top of the bridge.

And hanging from one of the rods was a noose made from wire.

The next place we went to is known as “The Towers.” They’re abandoned apartment buildings with all the doors and windows taken out. We could see shadows of people through the balconies, and Frederick explained to us that many kids lived here because they had no where else to go.

“The weather’s nice now, but because they have no heat or water, in the winter, a lot of them either freeze to death or jump off the top of the building to end the pain.”

To end the pain. I tried to imagine a kid my age, looking down from the top of that beige building. Or a kid huddled up in a sleeping bag, their hearts days away from freezing to a halt.

I tried to imagine a life where death is a welcome escape.

Our next destination was a place known on the streets as “The Bluff.” Frederick drove by, pointing at a laundromat where a group of people were milling about. “That’s where most kids get their heroin.”

“Oh and that store sells it out the back.”

“That one too.”

“Oh that’s a heroin dealer. He’s the one driving the Bentley. Ain’t nobody else be driving Bentleys around in this neighborhood.”

“And that’s a crack house.”

Why aren’t more people talking about this? It’s a huge reason as to why Atlanta’s issue of homelessness has gotten so out of control.

I’m definitely not trying to  generalize the entire population of people experiencing homelessness as drug addicts. But from the many homeless individuals I talked to, a vast majority contributed their situation, at least in part, to an addiction. We also heard from the people running the shelters that many people coming through where battling addictions.

Addiction is only part of the huge and complex web of causes of homelessness, and it surprised me to know that law enforcement hadn’t caught on to this yet and at least squashed it where they knew it was happening. When I asked Frederick about it, he shrugged and said “the police definitely know about it, but think it’s better to let it fester in a contained area than squash it here and have a dozen more of these nooks pop up.”

Frederick dropped us off at Elizabeth’s place, and we grumbled as we spread out our trash bags, and settled down for another long night.