Jerry’s Surgery

[Posted by Sylvia Broome, member of the Church on the Street community and director of women’s and human trafficking ministries]

My daughter had surgery in May. I was impressed by the gentle and reassuring attention from the nurses, the thorough conversation with the doctor prior to the surgery, and the visit from the anesthesiologist who carefully took her history.

After the surgery, she had multiple doses of pain medicine, cold compresses on her eyes for comfort, and frequent changes of bandages. The doctor stopped in to check on her. She stayed for several hours in recovery since she was so groggy from the anesthesia. When she was ready to go home, she was gently helped into the car by the nurse. The care she received was like a five star spa.

Jerry, a homeless member of our community, also had surgery in May. Jerry’s surgery was on both eyelids. He was not told prior to the surgery that he would need someone to help him with a ride after the surgery. Because of this, he had not made arrangements to get back to the facility where he was staying.

After the surgery was over he called me and said “I can’t see.” I drove to the hospital to pick him up and found him sitting alone on a wall outside of the hospital. He had been released with both eyes swollen shut, groggy and disoriented from the anesthesia. He could barely walk and needed two people to help him get into the car.

How different it is to have surgery when you are poor, homeless and uninsured.

Atlanta the Epicenter of Sex Trafficking

In Atlanta there is an estimated annual revenue of $290 million made from the sex trade, surpassing Miami as the #1 illegal sex trafficking market in the U.S. In fact, from 2003-2007 Atlanta and Seattle are the only major cities profiled in the Urban Institute’s latest report where sexual exploitation grew. To give some perspective to the enormity of Atlanta’s illegal market it is worth noting that Seattle, the third largest American market, is estimated to have an annual revenue of $112 million, which is less than half of Atlanta’s annual revenue.

In Georgia, there is an estimated 7,200 men who pay for 8,700 sex acts per month with minor females. This is around 300 acts per day. With an average of 100 minor girls being prostituted daily, every girl is being exploited 3 times each night.

Although solicitation through the internet is rapidly growing, street demand remains high throughout the country, especially in Atlanta. For the men, women and minor girls and boys being exploited in our neighborhood, prostitution is closely related to drugs and drug addiction. Whereas other women and girls can garner anywhere from $50 to $450 per john depending on the age, act and duration, those in the drug related trade can only hope for $10 to $50 per john while still expected to bring in a quota of $100-$150 each night from their pimp, “handler,” or “manager.” These unrealistic demands make violence against these slaves even more prevalent than under other conditions.

The exploitation of the transgendered population and minor boys in and around our neighborhood is also rampant. We have little more than anecdotal information about these populations because, as one Atlanta law enforcement member mentioned, there is little interest and no money for these boys.

The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts

The New York Times has an article about the research and new book from Dr. Carl Hart from Columbia University that makes for a potentially paradigm shifting encounter.  What is most encouraging is that it helps us, and other communities like ours, to think even further and deeper about the implications and power of belonging and hope that we so ardently espouse. 

Traditional views of addiction focus more on the weakness of the individual, or pathology, and less so on the context of the person. This view is mainly fostered from research on rats that have suggested that for someone who uses cocaine, the desire for it overcomes all other desires and leaves them helpless.  But, according to Hart, “Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted. And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.” So where is the disconnect?  Hart’s research pushes back against the traditional view.

The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.

This sensibility is being supported by other researchers, most notably by Dr. Nutt, a British expert in addiction.

Addiction always has a social element, and this is magnified in societies with little in the way of work or other ways to find fulfillment.

So, if we know that addiction has much to do with social belonging and sense of worth through contribution, why is so much focus and money being spent on treatments in the form of twelve-step style rehabilitation or chemical treatments?  According to Dr. Hart, it has something to do with the wrong kind of incentives – not for addicts but for academics and politicos.

It’s much simpler for politicians and journalists to focus on the evils of a drug than to grapple with the underlying social problems. But Dr. Hart also puts some of the blame on scientists.  “Eighty to 90 percent of people are not negatively affected by drugs, but in the scientific literature nearly 100 percent of the reports are negative,” Dr. Hart said. “There’s a skewed focus on pathology. We scientists know that we get more money if we keep telling Congress that we’re solving this terrible problem. We’ve played a less than honorable role in the war on drugs.”

The whole article, and I assume book, is worth the read.

No air conditioning for me

     I work along side people that are homeless on a regular basis and still I tend to forget sometimes the challenges that a person without a home deals with.  I don’t think I’m calloused, I just don’t pay enough attention.  I come and go, they come and go, and so our days fade away.  

     So last night my wife and I came home to find that our air conditioner had stopped working.  It was still about 90 degrees in the evening so I had a little bit, ok a lot, of poor me.  “I hope I can sleep, I hope it doesn’t get too hot, and so on.”  I tried to keep bringing myself back to the fact that so many have much more dire problems to deal with, but I’m ashamed to admit that I was having a hard time not keeping the attention on myself.  

      We called and our air conditioner was fixed this morning.  But, those living without, some on the streets, and some close to it, may not have had a “fix” to their situation this morning.  In fact, a few of those people may not have even had any hope that such a thing was possible.  

     All children of God are called to be the hands and feet of Christ.  I hope that the next time I do a better job of that.  

A View from London on the Occupy Movement

Here are two responses given by Rev. Dr. Chris Brittain of the University of Aberdeen in relation to the Occupy London movement and recent events regarding the actions of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The first is in response to the Cathedral’s decision to have the protesters removed.  The second regards the comments made by the former archbishop.

It is one of those rare occasions that leaders in the contemporary church long for: to be at the heart of the action. In a society with little interest in organised Christianity, suddenly St Paul’s cathedral finds itself at the epicentre of the Occupy London movement (St Paul’s may seek injunction to move activists, 24 October). Rather than serving as a museum to the past, it has become a site of public contestation. Initially, the church demonstrated a hospitality that intrigued activists. Impressed after hearing a priest offer prayers for both the protesters and the police, one young man said: “It has changed my idea positively of the Church of England.”

On Sunday, however, the cathedral shut its doors, using the meagre excuse of “health and safety concerns”. Today the church has admitted that its main worry is lost tourist revenues. Such a stance will only confirm what many outsiders already think about the church. Influence and relevance in the wider society do not come without some inconvenience. It is a pity that the cathedral is unwilling to get its hands dirty. As an Anglican, I hope St Paul’s doesn’t completely squander this chance to make a real witness to its faith while it is in the public eye. Does suing young and unemployed protesters really model the call to love one’s neighbour?
Rev Christopher Craig Brittain
Aberdeen

George Carey’s entry into the controversy over the closing of St. Paul’s Cathedral (The Telegraph 28 Oct) may aim to articulate a ‘balanced’ approach to the issue, but there is nothing reassuring about balanced cynicism. After helpfully acknowledging that the Cathedral has not handled the situation with Occupy LSX well, he then proceeds to accept the un-informed view that the occupiers are ‘spoilt middle class’ young people who were rude enough not to leave when St. Paul’s asked them nicely. The former Archbishop then sits back and scolds everyone involved, calling the situation a ‘parable’ that illustrates the brokenness of British society. In the New Testament, parables are open-ended stories that challenge listeners to see the world in a new way. Carey’s perspective does nothing of the sort, but only repeats cynical stereotypes that reveal that he is not well informed. Bertolt Brecht once told a parable of his own: ‘When crime is committed, just as the rain fails, no one cries Halt’. What the Occupy LSX are trying to do is to at least cry ‘Halt’ against the many social ills that plague contemporary society. This hopeful gesture is a far more useful contribution that the former Archbishop’s cynical despair.

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.

Craig’s Poetry for Sale

Craig holding an example of his poetry posterized.Many of you may have met Craig or at least viewed his spoken word poetry on one of our sites.  Click here for a video of Craig performing his poetry freestyle.  I recently met up with Craig and he has found a printer that was willing to publish his poetry on posters for purchase.  If you are interested in purchasing one or more of his posters (he has 15-20) and supporting his efforts to escape the street you can contact him directly at anthonyhigginson77@gmail.com.

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.

Brodie

It’s all about being, not doing

I talk to as many people as I can about the mission of Church on the Street.  This question almost always comes up: “what do you do?”  It’s a valid question, but a little off the mark.  Do we ‘do’ things at Church on the Street?  Yes,  for instance we have a Saturdays on the Street program where we bring coffee, coats, socks, gloves, hats and other needed items.  But our mission is not about doing.  Our mission is about being.

We are being Jesus to people that need him and need a friend.  We are being people who care enough to spend a Saturday morning just hanging out with people that may feel like they’ve been forgotten.  And there’s more,  we are being Jesus to more than just the homeless.  We want to be the light to anyone who needs to see it.  The young mother who finds herself alone.  The widower who suddenly realizes that he’s alone.  The frazzled woman in the grocery store line that just needs a friendly face.  And of course, the homeless man or woman that needs to know that God still cares.

The mission of Church on the Street is to ‘be’.  Only when we learn to ‘be’ can we truly be affective in our doing.

Brodie

Thankful Day with the Homeless

I have just returned from speaking engagements and meetings.  Although these opportunities give me the chance to share about what God is doing through Church on the Street and to encourage the church to love the least of their neighbors, it also takes me away from my friends on the streets.  Today I had a bit of time to check in with these friends before the rain was expected to hit.  But to be honest, I was just going to “make an appearance” before Thanksgiving to let the folks know that I haven’t forgotten them after being gone for a while.  After all, I had lots of other things to catch up on too not to mention getting ready for the big feast Thursday.

After visiting with a few of my friends I set out to find Don.  I had a message for him from “Bankrobber,” one of the guys we had helped get into a program and out of homelessness.  (I love it when the guys who find help and hope reach out to the ones who are still wandering.)  As I was searching for him a man approached me that I had never met and asked if I was lost.  I introduced myself and told him what I was doing.  He asked a lot of questions about what I do.  I didn’t think he was homeless, but after feeling me out he started telling me his story.  His name is Derek, he’s only been homeless for a short time (hence why I have never met him), and is looking for a “detox.”  He met with one referring agency that told him he needed to come back in the morning and they could help him.  As anyone who has worked on the streets for anytime knows, sometimes you have to strike while the iron is hot.  I asked if he was looking for a long term program or just detox.  (This question will sometimes tell you how serious the person is.)  He said, “long term” so I said, “come with me.”  After asking a few of my other friends about him to check out his story, I took him straight to a long-term rehabilitation program.  Please say a prayer for Derek tonight as he begins his new journey.

After helping Derek I ran into Connie or “Bowleg” as she is known on the streets.  She got her nickname because she has significant deformities in her legs that make her walk bowlegged.  I’ve known Bowleg for awhile and have been able to help her a few times in the past.  To make a long story short, after we spent some time chatting we decided that we would try to get her into transitional housing.  I’m not worried that Bowleg will follow through, she always does, but I am concerned that there will not be space available for her.  Pray that we find her a place.

Finally, as I was getting ready to head home Jay stopped me.  He wanted to know if I had any socks he could have.  I gave him some socks but I could tell that there was something more than socks going on in his mind.  I’ve known him a long time and I could tell he wanted to say something.  But he wasn’t saying it so I just decided after a short conversation to head on home.  As I was saying goodbye he shook my hand and held onto it.  He looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.”  Other than my family, I have never felt that someone was more sincere than him at that moment.  Pray for Jay that he will truly know that he is loved too.

As usual, when I can think of little more than myself and my schedule God has a way a way of showing me that all of time is His and He’ll use it how He wills to make sure His people are loved.  Pray for me that I will remember that I am God’s servant and not my schedule’s.  This is what I am truly thankful for this week.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pastor Andy