Severe weather for the homeless

Midtown and Downtown Atlanta as seen from Vini...
Midtown and Downtown Atlanta as seen from Vinings, Cobb County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weather guys are reporting some severe weather coming through the Atlanta area this afternoon.  Most people will pay a little attention to these kinds of warnings.  We don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it because we’re typically at home or going from work(shelter) to home(shelter).

But what happens if there is no shelter to go to?  Hid under a tree maybe?  Run really fast between rain drops?  Nah.  If you’re homeless you either find shelter or you weather the storm.  I don’t know what the answer is to this problem anymore than you do.  Just food for thought I guess.


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Service is a daily task

Members of the United States Navy serve the ho...
Members of the United States Navy serve the homeless at Dorothy’s Soup Kitchen in Salinas, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many well meaning people out there that decide to give of their time on occasion.  They may serve at a soup kitchen, give out lunch bags in an inner city park, hand out clothes, etc.  It’s kind of like a kinder, gentler drive by.

But we are not called to occasional service.  We are called to a complete giving of ourselves to Jesus and His mission.  God does not want spare parts from any of us,  he wants the whole enchilada.  He calls us to serve the human being, not the idea or their condition.  Passing out the occasional sandwich is good, but it misses the mark.  It is the heart and soul of a person we are after.  Winning a person to Christ has eternal consequences.  A sandwich for the sake of a sandwich is forgotten in short order.

If you would like to be our guest and learn what Jesus called us to do and see it in real life action, then please let us know.  We would be honored to have you as our guest.


Church on the Street

Occupy Atlanta, the Mayor, and the Clergy

Last Friday I was speaking at an event on hunger in Atlanta. Also at that event was the Director of Human Resources for the city of Atlanta. Her name is Mitzi and she is basically in charge of distributing federal funds to agencies that work with the homeless. We engaged in conversation about, what appeared like, the immanent closing of the largest shelter in Atlanta located in the community where we do our main work. The shelter is currently housing over 500 men and that number is growing as the night temperatures begin to fall. At the height of the winter they will house nearly 1,000 men.

A bit of back story might be helpful here: In brief, the shelter has been under constant siege for over the past decade from business organizations, government agencies, etc. These antagonists are against the shelter for many reasons including its location on prime real estate, the omnipresence of the homeless in this prime area, the perceived lack of good management, different philosophies of service, etc. All the homeless agencies and individuals that work in these agencies that I speak with directly see the essential need for the shelter, but refrain from speaking out on their behalf. I suspect because they are afraid of being targeted as well. Another long story short, a judge, at this point in the story, had ordered the eviction of the shelter. The leadership of the shelter, many friends of the shelter (including Occupy Atlanta), and some of the homeless who live there had no intentions of following that order.

Mitzi and I, and others, had a very interesting conversation. She let us know that it is not the city that will be closing the shelter, rather it will be the court at the hands of their marshals. But it must be pointed out that the city has been granted the power to shut the shelter down at the end of the month of they so choose. In this conversation she assured me that the Mayor had no intention of using said power. Nonetheless, the city does have an interest in caring for these men if the shelter is closed down by the court. You could tell the urgency and feeling of helplessness that Mitzi was reflecting. The city has a general plan (though insufficient for the need) in place but it depends on the cooperation of the men and the leadership of the shelter; neither of which they can count on. At the end of the conversation Mitzi invited me to come on Monday to speak with her and the Mayor about the issue, hoping that I could share some of my insight from the street level. I was glad to oblige.

At 2:30pm I would meet with Mitzi, then at 3pm we would meet with the Mayor together. Over the weekend I spent time on the streets talking with my friends about what they were hearing and thinking. I met with Anita, the executive director of the shelter, to hear from her what was going on and what might be done to avert a show down. We had a very constructive conversation. In the meantime the judge rescinded his order to evict for a time likely until he can get the legal argument in order. (His order was likely to be overturned if he had not rescinded.) Since the closing of the shelter had simply been postponed I still thought it extremely important to meet in order to help avert this inevitable show down.

On Monday I met Mitzi in the lobby of City Hall and we walked up to the board room in the Mayors section of the building. She informed me on the walk that she was not sure who all was going to be there or what the agenda was going to be. I was confused. I asked who else was going to be there. She did not know for sure, but thought that Bernice King was going to show up (Bernice is the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) I wasn’t sure what Ms. King new about the homeless problem but I was ready to advise the Mayor on what was happening on the streets and how he could help the homeless and avoid a world of trouble.

When we entered the conference room there was an impressive spread of food and refreshments. Two other pastors I had never met were already there. Soon more and more clergy showed up. All in all around 20 or so pastors were there. I knew two. This meant that something wasn’t quite right because I knew that most of these folks did not work on the streets. It also meant that it was unlikely we would have any kind of serious conversation.

Finally the time came for us to meet with the Mayor. We were all ushered into another room and seated in a large circle. The Mayor entered, greeted everyone, and then began the meeting. He informed us that we were meeting about Occupy Atlanta. It appeared to me that everyone there already knew this, but it was news to me. He told us that he had gathered us together because he was about to start a new course of action and wanted to get our feedback. I thought it a bit strange that he gathered this group together to talk about this subject, but there we were.

He told us that up to this point he had been tolerant of the movement. In deference to the rich tradition in Atlanta of non-violent protest he felt that he would allow them to protest without disruption as long as they stayed within the “Kingian” parameters of non-violent protest. He also claimed that he was sympathetic to their cause. Mayor Reed had issued an executive order that allowed the protestors to remain in the park after hours. He then informed us that they had crossed the “Kingian” line and promised to escalate their actions even more to garner attention. He shared with us a few incidents that happened over the weekend that he found unacceptable. (As a side note, it is worth pointing out that these incidents were widely reported on in the news including how the Mayor had tried to meet with them in his mobile command unit where he seemed to at least nearly lose his temper. The stories were not flattering to the Mayor.) These incidents included promoting a hip-hop concert in the park without permit or security plan while falsely advertising acts that would be there to perform, but in actuality were never slated. (The Mayor claims Occupy Atlanta said the acts would be there, Occupy Atlanta claims they just said they would be honored there. I think the concert’s add was at least misleading.) Other incidents were occupying an upscale mall, using a generator the fire chief determined a fire hazard, and shouting down the Mayor’s spokesperson. According to the Mayor, because of these incidents and the promise of escalation, he was going to change course.

His plan is simple. He will rescind his executive order that made it legal for them to stay in the park after hours, but not before a contingent of clergy go to the park and try to negotiate with the leaders. When the order to vacate the park comes male police officers will then arrest males, and females will arrest the females.

After presenting this to the group those gathered were given the opportunity to comment. Because of the large number gathered this took the form of going around the circle and if your hand was raised you got to give your two cents. This was not a time for discussion, rather simply a time to share abbreviated thoughts. Most, but not all shared something. There were many in the room that were in support of the Occupy movement, but who were also sympathetic to the pressures and issues the Mayor was considering, especially given the way the Mayor couched the current situation. There were some others in the room that may not have explicitly stated their opposition to Occupy Atlanta, but their comments or suggestions betrayed their position.

One veteran of the Civil Rights movement stated emphatically that he was supportive of the Occupy Atlanta group and needed more assurances from the Mayor that this was absolutely in the best interest of the common good before he felt comfortable with the idea. Another pastor suggested that any negotiations be public and transparent.

My concerns that I communicated to the Mayor were threefold: First, I told him that I didn’t think the clearing of the park would go as easily as he suggested. Not due to a violent reaction, but simply because that is the nature of a large police action. Second, I asked what the plan would be after they cleared the park. There was no way that clearing the park was ending the movement and thus not the end of police involvement. And third, which I felt was most important, I asked how this related to the shelter since there is now no daylight between the shelter and the Occupy Atlanta movement. I was curious if this was also an opportunity for him to try and defang a situation before it could begin. In other words, I was wondering if now he would move to close the shelter. There was no response, which I was not surprised about. He had not been responding to most others either. He was just listening and taking it in. But what I was surprised about was that no one else even once mentioned the shelter or reiterated my concern. This was a clear indication that those gathered did not fully comprehend the implications and scope of what they were being presented.

Perhaps the most anticipated voice was that of Bernice King. She waited until everyone was given the chance to speak, then she gave a thoughtful and measured response. She said that if we were going to be talking about Kingian non-violence then it may be helpful to be reminded of what those principles were. She rehearsed them for us, then, among other comments, stated that if there was to be a negotiation then perhaps it is wise that those who have already determined what should happen should not be involved. This way the negotiations could be undertaken in good faith. I thought this was helpful in at least pointing out that there should actually be a negotiation and that a decision should be made after they have been given a fair chance to come to terms. My concern was that Kingian non-violence is not intended to be a tool of the powerful, but rather of the weak. I’m not sure the state can ever be agents of non-violence against those who call the status-quo and the powers themselves into question.

After everyone had been heard a note pad was sent around the room for those who were willing to be part of the negotiation team to give their contact information. I let it pass me by. I first of all believed that there could be no honest negotiation. The dye had been cast. Second, I had no intention of being an agent of the state, dressed up in clergy garb, to stand against the outcry of the poor. It doesn’t matter how I feel about the movement itself.  Besides, the Occupy Atlanta group exists to not negotiate, at least not in the way or with the people the Mayor suggested. They exist to highlight injustice and the collusion of the powerful against the interests of the poor and the common good. Although I’ve not heard this articulated, greed and indifference are just as damaging to those who practice them as those who are their victims: judgment brings repentance and healing.

At this point the Mayor informed us that there would be a press conference and he would like those who were present and willing to stand with him when he made the announcement about rescinding his order. When asked when the press conference would be he informed us that it would be right now, there was already a cadre of cameras ready. As we were preparing to exit I huddled with a few of my colleagues who work closely with our friends on the street. We felt this had all been stagecraft.

The police chief and fire chief joined for the press conference. The clergy followed behind the Mayor. The Mayor gave his already prepared remarks.

When I left the building I called Mitzi. She didn’t answer but later returned my call. I told her that this was not why I was there and that it all seemed like a P.R. stunt. I also informed her that if she ever wanted to talk about the shelter I would be willing to help find an agreeable outcome. She said she would call me soon.

Fighting the old me

Nearly Getting Arrested in Downtown Atlanta
Image by Stuck in Customs via Flickr

For the next few days I have to drive to downtown Atlanta each morning for a conference.  It’s not a horribly long drive by any means, maybe 30 minutes.  But as I drove into the city this morning I caught myself quietly whining about the constant rain today and the cold and the traffic and so on.  I wasn’t until I exited onto Courtland Avenue, which is very near Renaissance Park, that I caught the error of my ways.

While I was busy whining about having to drive in the rain, there are homeless men and women all around me who have no escape.  Or at least very little.  While I was in a warm bed last night, they were outside.  When I was warming up the car this morning, they were just trying to stay warm.  And while I was driving to a conference that has to do with a business I own, they were wondering if they will ever get back on their feet again.

I write this for two reasons.  First, to confess the error of my thinking this morning and pray that I won’t do it again.  And second,  to hopefully give us all a little perspective on the gravity, or lack thereof, of our everyday problems.  Tomorrow, I will make the same drive.  This time I will do it with prayer and thanksgiving.


Corruption in the City…Hospitality Edition

Dr. Jim Beaty of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless who runs the homeless shelter at Peachtree/Pine highlights Larry Keating’s article published in Hospitality.  If you want to get a sense of the forces aligned against the poor and homeless in Atlanta as articulated by a respected professor from Georgia Tech then read on…

When the light walks in the darkness flees

My wife, Jodi, and I were down at the park with the rest of the crew this weekend for Saturdays on the Street.  We were all standing around at the park steps where all of the normal drug trade takes place and I noticed Jodi a few steps away talking to who I thought was one of our homeless friends.  He actually was a guy who had been stranded downtown by his friends and couldn’t get home.   I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but Jodi told me about the conversation later.  Here’s how it goes:

Man:  You guys have an interesting psychology.

Jodi:  psychology?

Man:  Yes, like reverse psychology.

Jodi:  What do you mean?

Man: It’s like you guys walk in and a light pushes out all of the dark.  You know what I mean.  You don’t tell everybody what they shouldn’t be doing, but those people clear out.  You know what I mean.  You know what I’m talking about.

Jodi: Yes, I know what you mean.

What this man saw as an outsider was that when the light of Christ walked in the darkness had to flee.  We didn’t need to say anything or really do anything.  We just walked into the park as representatives of Jesus and everything changes.  The drug dealers and others that are up to no good recognize us as Christ’s representatives and they run to escape the light.  Leaving behind those ready to be shown the love of Jesus.


Are homeless people a problem?

San Francisco has a new program they’re rolling out to combat homelessness [Atlanta has already instituted this program].  They’re called homeless meters.  They’re just like parking meters except the money goes to homeless shelters.  They’re goal is to keep people from having to give money directly to the homeless.  They can put it in the meter instead.  The article I read referred to the homeless as San Francisco’s most vexing problem.

I’ve got to be honest.  The fact that a person that has ended up living on the street is referred to as San Fran’s biggest problem really angers me.

A homeless person is not a problem that you just have to deal with.  They’re not like a bunch of mice in your house that you have to figure out how to get rid of.  They are people.  People lovingly created by God in his image just like the rest of us.  The only difference between us and them is that somewhere along the line they have ended up homeless.  There are various reasons for where they have ended up, but that doesn’t change the fact that they need help now.

I’m sorry for the rant, but a person being homeless is not a problem to be hidden or dealt with so that they don’t bother anyone.  A homeless person is a person.  A person that for whatever reason has ended up living on the street and may not know how to correct the situation.  They need sincere help and love.  Not a parking meter to help keep them separated from the rest of society.


The forgettable homeless

As some of you may or may not know, I help Pastor Andy and Church on the Street with their social media efforts.  That means that I contribute to this blog as well as the activity on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s something that I try to do on a daily basis.  Blogging is by far the most difficult activity of any social media effort.  It simply takes more time and much more thought.

I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon with social media in mind.  I couldn’t make it down to work with the usual Saturday on the Street this morning.  Had to work my other job.  The longer I’m away from the homeless the more they start to fade from my mind.  Then the harder it is to write for this blog.  I quickly forget and let the worries of my normal life push the concerns for the homeless out of my mind.  I start to forget that I have a higher calling in this life and that calling has nothing to do with if I’m saving enough for retirement or where to have dinner tonight.  My calling from God is to reach out to others, homeless and home having, and show them the gift that Jesus has to offer.

I will definitely try not to miss any more Saturday’s on the Streets and I’ll work even harder on directing my mind towards the things that matter.  Eternal things.


The cost of one soul

I hope you know that the mission of Church on the Street has been successful.  Just today I saw that Pastor Andy posted a story of a homeless gentleman that is now going to rehab.  Praise God!  This is not the only story like this.

Lets take a look at this from a different position though.  Let’s say that Pastor Andy, you, me and everyone else involved with the mission of COTS work tirelessly for the next 40 years and not one more person leaves the street.

Sounds like a horrible failure doesn’t it?  But not so much if we change the lense we’re using to look at the situation.

So, back to the scenario.  You, me and the rest come along side Pastor Andy and we all work day in and day out and not one person stops being homeless.  And then the end comes.  Jesus returns and we go home.  When we get there, we see all the family and friends that went before us.  They’ve been waiting on us to get there.  They are so happy to see us and they’re chomping at the bit to show us around heaven.  They’re especially excited to take us around the block to see our new home that Jesus has been working on this whole time.  But before we go, they say they’ve got something to show us that’s even more impressive.

So you follow along, totally unaware of what could be possibly be better than just being here in heaven.  You round one more corner and there’s a scene that brings you to your knees.  You’re winded like you’ve just been punched in the gut and not sure how you can even walk again.

The scene before you is a party.  Not just any party, but a welcome home party in your honor.  You immediately wonder, with everyone that just came to heaven along with you, why do I deserve a party for just me.  Just then you start to recognize some of the faces in the crowd.  You’re having such a hard time placing all the smiling faces and then it hits you like a ton of bricks.

The clothes are definitely different and the faces are so much brighter.  Happier than you’ve ever seen them.  This is not just a welcome home party.  It’s a thank you party.  All of the homeless men and women that you touched in your time with them have gathered to throw you a huge thank you/welcome home party.  They never found a home on earth, but because you didn’t give up, they found Jesus and in turn found the mansion that he had prepared for them.

Is one soul worth the effort, even if they always remain homeless on earth?  To me, it’s our goal.  Finding them a way off of the street is just a side benefit.


It’s all about hope

Why does Church on the Street do what it does?  Why does Pastor Andy go out into the street day after day?  Why do groups travel from many miles away to spend one day working with the homeless?

It’s all about hope.  Think about hope in your own life.  Hope for a promotion at work.  Hope for your kids to do well in school.  Hope to be able to afford the next vacation.  Hope for the future in general.

We all need hope to keep going.  Otherwise the monotony of day after day would be too much to bear.  That’s what Church on the Street is bringing to the homeless.  Hope.  Hope that comes from knowing that someone cares and that you’re not alone.  Hope in knowing that God still knows where you are and he has people looking after you.  Hope that things can change and that the world, at least not all of it, is not as bad as we might have thought.