In a moment of altruism in the fall of 2008, I decided to try my hand at life on the streets of Atlanta.
It was an uncharacteristically chilly evening in late March when a friend and I ventured into the downtown district armed with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We walked through the dimming city, watching as the onslaught of dusk separated the housed from the homeless. It wasn’t long before we came across a man sitting alone in his wheelchair at the edge of a city park. He was intimidating, to say the least—his bulk enhanced by the low light. Even in his wheelchair, one could see he stood about 6-foot-3 and possessed a sturdy build. He was a white man with broken wide-rimmed glasses and a goatee that reached mid-chest. His name was Rolph and he had lived on Atlanta’s streets for six years. As soon as we confessed to him that it was our first night sans shelter, he insisted on showing us the ropes. “I always stay over at Safe House,” he said cheerfully—so we agreed to accompany him to the parking lot where he made his residence. After a three-block walk, we arrived at the lot where we met Rick, a fellow homeless man who immediately built us a lean-to out of cardboard.
“You girls need to know how to survive on the streets?” he asked with a smirk. “Cardboard is your answer.” He bowed us into our scrap-sewn shelter in the corner of the parking lot. It was 10 p.m. and I had too much adrenaline to sleep, so we passed the time until midnight playing cards, which quickly turned into a peripheral as the men began to share their stories. Both men had children, dreams, pasts and a deep understanding of spirituality to boot. When we finally got too tired to play or speak, my friend and I crawled into our cardboard bed. Rolph limped out of his wheelchair and laid a comforter over us that he pulled from the carrier on his chair. It was welcome warmth, and smelled dank.
“Y’all sleep good now, I will be right here lookin’ out for you,” was his “good night.”
After an hour of apprehensive sleep, I woke to rain. My feet were numb and my sweatshirt was heavy with the runoff from an adjacent building.
As Rolph methodically gathered his things he yelled to us over his shoulder, “Follow me!”
The three of us walked, muted by cold and sleeplessness, until Rolph broke the silence: “Welcome to the homeless hotel,” he chuckled, ushering us into the entrance of a parking deck connected to an abandoned building. As my eyes adjusted to the dim yellow deck lights, I saw rows of men covered in old coats, newspapers and blankets lying side to side, covering the entire floor of the deck. I stood there in silence as Rolph wheeled ahead of us through the lines of sleeping men. All four levels of the deck were full of sleepers, soaked from the walk from their normal dwellings to the “homeless hotel.”
We finally found a space to set up for the night on the last level of the deck. Surrounded by walls of water and drenched to the bone, we laid the comforter on the cracked pavement. After chatting for a bit with some of the men around us, I fell into a very light, nervous and cold sleep. I woke up at 5 a.m. out of simple discomfort and saw Rolph staring out over the city covered in clouds illuminated by streetlights. He seemed to be focused on the glow of a television in a hotel room window across the street. He must have felt my gaze on him, because he snapped out of his trance and welcomed me with a raspy “good morning, girl.
My friend woke up to Rolph and I chatting about his daily schedule. He wakes up at 5 every morning and wheels around the city, collecting discarded treasures and parceling them out again. As he told us about the various treasures he had found on the streets, he reached under his wheelchair and pulled out a trash bag full of found odds and ends. He took some mascara, an eye mask and a tube of lipstick out of his bag and offered them to us, saying, “This is great stuff—you girls will love it.” Excitedly I put the eye mask on and passed the makeup to my friend. We laughed and thanked Rolph for the gifts, rubbing the lipstick on our fingers and then to our lips.
Suddenly Rolph turned to us and mumbled, “Thank you.”
“I know you girls aren’t really homeless. Am I right?”
Embarrassed, I answered: “No, we aren’t. Not at all.”
“Thank you so much for doing this,” he replied, staring past us to the comforter on the ground. “I loved being able to take care of you girls. It was a nice change, kind of made me feel human again.”
The moment Rolph said “thank you” was the moment I realized the human condition is defined by so much more than the need for food, water and shelter. Everyone is created with an innate need to give. Scripture says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). What I have come to realize is that sometimes it is important to place others in the more “blessed” position by receiving from them—their help, their stories, their ideas. This rings true especially with the homeless community of our nation. I tend now to subscribe to a give-and-take relationship with the men and women I work with as opposed to the typical unilateral, non-reciprocal social services we practice as a society when we “serve” the poor. I now work for the National Coalition for the Homeless with a project called the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau. This project allows homeless individuals to share their stories, to educate and ultimately to be blessed by giving their stories and their lives to the Atlanta community. I would charge us as a society, especially as a Christian society, to put the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden in the blessed position by simply receiving from them. They have a lot to offer.
*Please note that this was a dangerous endeavor. I do not advise that anyone replicate this experience due to safety reasons