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.”