For most of the day we did what most homeless people do. First thing was to go to the CNN building where they had a giant food court and a large screen where we could watch the news. I got a big cup of Starbucks and began to wake up finally. We hung out, reflected on our experiences so far, checked in with our wives, watched the news, and planned our day. We had a few more lessons to learn.
Next we made our way to the library to hang out, another common activity of homeless people. Both at CNN and the library we saw a fair number of men we recognized from the mission. To get in we had to get in a line to have our bags checked. The security person was searching the bag of the guy in front of me, which apparently was full of ants that were now crawling on the desk. The officer was clearly annoyed.
The minute the library opened, about 15-20 men, most of whom were presumably homeless, streamed in to get on a computer. Most of them were on social media or watching videos. If you did not have a library card you got a free 30-minute session on the computers. I searched for an outlet to charge my phone and finally found one which was not taped over or blocked off. I read my Bible for a bit, WAITED, charged the phone, wandered around, and killed some time.
A Police Encounter
Eventually we left and went searching for a soup kitchen to have lunch. We searched for a homeless person to ask where to go. We soon found one and asked him. We had to first explain to him that we were homeless and needed a place to eat. This was not his thought at first glance. But he bought our story and told us to follow him (he had been on his way to sit outside a restaurant because he said that if you sat long enough eventually some rich guy would ask if you were hungry and bring you a meal). He walked a couple of steps in front of us, and we walked right behind.
After a couple of blocks an officer riding a Segway rolled up behind me and asked me to step to the side. I let him pass, and he told our guide to stop and asked what he was up to in a confrontational and accusatory tone. He explained that he was taking us somewhere to eat. The officer (his badge said he was an “ambassador”) told him to get out of here and move on, which he reluctantly did and began to wait for us about a block away. The “ambassador” accused the guy of trying to hustle us and said he was just trying to get money out of us. The officer then told us where a certain food court was located (this is when we definitely knew there was something about us that did not look homeless). We then explained we had no money and were homeless in search of a soup kitchen or something. He then told us about another place. We thanked him, and he left. We then caught up with our homeless guide and continued to follow him where he had planned to take us. We arrived at the soup kitchen and were given some kind of salmon concoction and five slices of bread. It filled the hole, and we didn’t get sick.
A Loss of Dignity
After lunch we wandered the streets. I got more coffee, and we sat in the park for a bit while we were waiting for the next shelter to open up. More waiting. Eventually we walked a couple of miles to the next shelter, the Atlanta City Baptist Rescue Mission. We waited outside for another hour or two and talked with a few men. We were told we couldn’t wait out front of the mission but instead had to wait down the street. We talked with a few guys while we waited. Eventually we lined up and came inside. We all stood in a line in front of a large desk while two men were getting ID’s and checking guys in. One searched everyone’s bag. The staff was all dressed in black pants, white short sleeved dress shirts and ties. I got to the front of the line and was asked a couple of basic questions. He looked down at his computer most of the time. Then I was sent to the shower. In order to eat here later, one must shower. I went down the hall and was given a tattered washcloth and a piece of soap. No towel. They allow guys five minutes only to shower. I just wet my head and called it a day. The shower, toilets and whole area were pretty filthy.
After this we sat in the chapel and waited awhile. At five ‘o clock they said they were serving a snack. On the surface it looked like some sort of blue grit casserole. The guy serving it said it was a “secret recipe”. I took a bit. It was sweet, very strange. Still couldn’t figure out what it was. Jason’s best guess was that they took a bunch of desserts, muffins, etc, mashed then in a casserole dish, and scooped it out. I regretted eating that.
We went back into the chapel and waited another two hours. We also observed. We sat on metal folding chairs, but there were some padded pews on the side. Jason sat down on one. A staff member said that he was not allowed to sit there, that those pews were reserved for the regenerates. That’s right- they have some type of program, probably not unlike our Ministry Trainee Program at Miracle Hill, and they help run the place. They are called the regenerates ( I guess that makes the rest of us de-generates?). One of the “regenerates” was standing up at the pulpit taking requests from men who wanted clothes from the clothing closet. He stood three feet above the person he was taking requests from, and he talked down to them, literally and verbally. He seemed annoyed at the men’s requests, condescending in his demeanor and words, as if the men were lucky to get anything from him and should feel ashamed for even asking. Later on he brought the clothes down and was calling out names of men who had requested them. Again, impatient, and short with them.
Finally at 7 p.m. the chapel service started. We still had not eaten dinner. The chapel speaker worked for the mission in some capacity. Full black suit, slicked back hair. A man stood up front and led in singing a few old gospel hymns, a capella. Not a good singer, forgot some lyrics, but some of the men sang.
Then they took up an offering. From the homeless men. An offering. With money.
Then the sermon started. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember his discussing the “victorious Christian life”, giving many calls to salvation, and telling us about the mats. A note about the mats. This place had no beds; they had mats on the floor, and a sheet. I didn’t see any pillows or full blankets. During the sermon he said that the mats they used to have were like wrestling mats and that they had spent $6,000 on new ones that were much better. I saw the mats later on…no more than 3 inches thick, some torn and taped up. They reminded me of the kind kids nap on in preschool. Not the kind worth bragging about.
Glad to be Going Home
After a full hour of chapel, at 8 p.m., it was time for dinner. Corn, green beans, and a mash of overcooked rice. Honestly, I was glad to get some vegetables in my system. Jason and I had already decided to not stay the night and to head back to Greenville. So we just walked out.
We headed back to the house where our car was parked through a pretty sketchy part of town. It was a nice evening, though, and I was glad to be moving on. When we got back to my car, the coolant light went on. It had run out on the way in and was bone dry. I added some, and it leaked right out. I drove down the street to a gas station to get more coolant and to pop the hood. This issue had happened before on that car, and a small part needed to be replaced. But it was 10 p.m., and we were running out of options. We tried a lot of different things. I called my insurance, got the run around, which took awhile. My nerves were very on edge at this point. Finally we decided we were going to stay the night at the house it had been parked at and try to fix the car in the morning, which was a HUGE bummer. On the way to the house the coolant light did not go on…should we go for it? We prayed over the car and headed back to Greenville without stopping, and we made it. Somehow the car cooling down did something, but I believe God got us back.
At 3 a.m, after a good shower, I finally got into bed. I had to go to a school performance for my kindergartner at 8 a.m. the next morning. It took me another day or two to feel normal again, recovering from a lack of sleep and now full-on head cold. I was glad to not be homeless and to be back in my own bed. Our time on the streets had been a clear reminder that every person ought to be treated with kindness and respect as human beings created in God’s image and that we can always do a better job of communicating with the men at the mission — not only about schedule and policies, but in communicating truth, encouragement, grace and compassion.
Post submitted by Jeremy Huff. Jeremy, along with Jason Cochran (both Greenville Rescue Mission counselors), posed as homeless men in Atlanta to learn how the homeless are treated on and off the streets. Jeremy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864.631.0165.