Jason Cochran (fellow counselor at the Greenville Rescue Mission) and I (Jeremy Huff) stayed at two different shelters in Atlanta, GA, posing as homeless men. The purpose of this trip was twofold. First, we wanted to get a small taste of what it’s like to be treated like a homeless person on the street and in shelters, both by the staff and other homeless men. Second, we wanted to observe how different shelters handle homelessness and think about ways we can perhaps do a better job here.
We left Greenville around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, dressed in our most convincing homeless attire, just old work clothes basically, and the required backpack. We parked at the house of a friend of Tom Campbell’s (another Greenville Rescue Mission counselor), who lived only one to two miles away from the mission. Interestingly, this guy had done a similar experiment at the Greenville Rescue Mission some years back for several weeks. After parking he drove us near the Atlanta Mission and dropped us off a few blocks away. We had heard that check-in time was around 3:30 p.m., so we showed up at 2:45 p.m., and the line was already stretching down the block. The first guy I talked to in line remarked at how well-trimmed my hair and beard were and asked who my barber was. I told him it was in another state, fumbled through it. Then he said, “You’re not homeless, are you?”
At several points on this trip it became apparent that at first glance we did not look homeless. From our teeth, to our walk, attitude, how we carry ourselves, our clothing too. But once we said, “Yeah, we’re homeless,” they seemed to believe us. My cover story was that I had been living in South Carolina and had come to Atlanta to get a fresh start, that I just had to get out of a bad situation in South Carolina. No one really questioned this story or probed any deeper, except the one guy who asked if I had killed someone in South Carolina. Besides him, they all seemed to be satisfied with this story.
One guy was outside the line, and he said he was looking for guys who wanted to get sober. I told him that I did drink alcohol but just needed to start working and I’d be fine (I took my lines from men at the mission- that last one is pretty common). We asked him about the check-in time, and he said that they would holler for newcomers to come up first, then everyone else. We waited and waited until finally I walked to the front and asked if they had called for newcomers. They said they had done that a while ago but that I could come on up. I signaled Jason to come on up, and we began the check-in process.
In Atlanta they have been dealing with an epidemic of tubercolosis among the homeless. To remedy this, each client had to produce a TB card which showed they were not infected. If you didn’t have the card, which we did not, you had to go get some blood drawn on site, could stay for a couple of days in a separate dorm, until your results were ready and they issued you a TB card. So we were led to a room where two nurses were taking blood. After filling out some paperwork, I was called up. The nurse was very upbeat, conversational, and jovial, which was great. She took about three vials of blood, and I was done.
No Questions Asked
As we walked in we were each given a small piece of paper which had our bed number on it. Then we waited at some picnic table outside for intake. Finally we were led inside. We both had stories prepared in case we were asked specific questions about ourselves. These stories were not necessary, as all they needed was our ID, and they filled in the rest of the info from there on their laptops and we were done. We were not asked any other questions.
We were each given two clear trash bags, one for our dirty clothes, one for our other belongings. We were to put all of the items we would need for the evening into one bag, and the rest of our stuff was checked into a locker room. Next was the obligatory shower. We were given a towel and a washcloth that someone had already wet with a small amount of soap and were led into the shower room. This consisted of a long room with about 20 shower heads divided by curtains. It was a bit awkward and clumsy trying to keep my clothes dry in a place where every surface was soaking wet. There was no dry place to put my clothes except for inside the clear trash bag, which was pretty thin and didn’t keep out the water very well. But I managed to shower and put on a change of clothes. At the end of the shower room was a clothing exchange room. I had the option of trading in some of my clothes for new ones if they had my size. I traded in a shirt.
After this I headed up to my dorm. It was on the second floor, in the “O” Dorm. They had 15 or so bunk rooms with about 25 bunks in each. Our beds were right next to each other. The bed was pretty soft, not a lot of support, but comfortable enough. Most of the men were just hanging out in their beds either sleeping, talking, or doing something on their phones. I didn’t see any pillowcase or blankets- no one had explained how to get these. Jason figured it out and let me know- we could either have a sheet or a blanket. I went down and found a pillowcase and grabbed a rough, scratchy blanket, the kind normally used as moving blankets to protect your furniture. We had at least two hours before dinner.
Thus began our first of many longer periods of WAITING. To be continued…
Post submitted by Jeremy Huff. Jeremy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864.631.0165