“Looked like people trying to get out of a building on fire, except they were going in,” he said, as he washed a bus at Atlanta Mission, a homeless shelter in the shadows of downtown.
The New York scene typifies the holiest day in the religion of American materialism, like a Papal Mass on Christmas Eve or Easter morning.
But for Williams, there is little significance in the pandemonium. He isn’t just a volunteer or employee at the mission. He’s a resident. “I need nothing from a store,” he said. “That’s not what defines me. Everything I have, from my integrity to my socks and my shoes, I have from here.”
The 48-year-old son of an Army colonel spent much of his adult life in prison. Now he’s one of dozens of men who share bunks, meals, Bible studies and training sessions as part of a program intended to help them find jobs and homes. Hundreds more come each day for temporary assistance: hot meals, showers and beds — or a cot when the cold brings an overflow crowd.
The clusters of men on surrounding streets — those who aren’t enrolled in the residential program are supposed to leave the shelter during the day — provide a stark juxtaposition with the masses at retail outlets. And they serve as a reminder of a problem that remains more than 10 years after Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin helped launch a region-wide effort to endhomelessness.
Matt Emiohe sat Friday afternoon in the mission’s cafeteria after checking in for the night. He said he first lost his spot in a Life University dorm, then couldn’t make rent at an apartment. This time last year, he said, he had a job at Lenox Mall.
“It makes me feel more spiritual,” he said, to compare this Black Friday experience with previous ones. But he said he wasn’t thinking about possessions. Upon his most recent eviction, Emiohe said, he left most of his clothes and what furniture he had with his neighbors. “I couldn’t take it with me,” he said, clutching a small gym bag.
A few miles away, another Atlanta Mission facility called “My Sister’s House” has 264 beds for women and children. The bed total at the two properties puts just a dent in the number of Atlanta-area citizens who suffer homelessness. Several other shelters bring the number to several thousand, and there are hundreds of “transition beds” at Atlanta Mission and other facilities. Those are low-cost options intended as a bridge between shelters and self-sufficiency.
In recent years, studies have estimated that about 21,000 people in the region are homelessat some point during the year, with the number of chronically homeless — those who have gone without their own shelter for more than a year — pegged at about 10 percent of the larger figure.
Britton Clark, an Atlanta Mission spokesman, said people living comfortably should understand that homelessness is a complex issue with no easy explanation. There are plenty of stereotypical cases involving chemical addictions, untreated mental illness or both, he said. But, he added, “There’s also what I call ‘flat-tire’ homelessness. You’re late for work. You get fired. You get evicted. It can spiral quickly. Sometimes, it’s just two or three life steps or decisions that separate us and them.”
Everett Rice, another employee at the mission, said most homeless men and women just want guidance and opportunity. He sought temporary shelter more than a year ago after losing his career, family and home to a drug addiction. He completed the residential program and became a paid staff member.
“I can’t imagine ever going back,” he said. “Here, I’ve learned to love people. There’s a whole world out there that doesn’t know how to do that.”
Cedric Graham, another residential program participant, said that kind of attitude shouldn’t be mistaken for resentment of the Black Friday consumer culture. “I’ve had every gadget and everything that I thought would satisfy a man: the newest phones, cars, toys, women,” he said. “But in here, I just get to be Cedric. I can just be full of life. I can give wit