George on Georgia – Giving Tuesday
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Ponce and Highland, yesterday. “Do you know where I can get a sleeping bag?”
Michael found me in the parking lot of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church. He wore a ball cap with a second wide-brimmed hat around it with the middle torn out, swaddled in blankets, with two sets of clothes on. He had wrapped his left foot in plastic within ill-fitting brown loafers. He wasn’t wearing socks.
It was 43 degrees. By midnight it would fall to two above freezing.
This is killing weather in Atlanta. It’s amputation weather.
Yes, it gets colder in other places. But people who live on the street know how to survive freezing cold in New York. Cold kills in Atlanta when it drops from walking around in t-shirt weather to “wow, I saw snowflakes” weather without enough time to get ready. Three weeks ago the low temperature of the day was 70 degrees. Three days ago it was 68 degrees downtown.
Cold kills three kinds of people here. People with dementia who walk outside and get lost. People struggling with chronic alcoholism who pass out drunk. And people experiencing mental illness who can’t be talked into taking shelter in a killing cold.
I walked Michael to the clothing closet of Intown Collaborative Ministries in the back of the church. Tanya met him there, opening plastic bins to give him this and that. Soap. Hand sanitizer. A shirt. No shoes in size 8, but clean socks. “You have to keep your feet dry,” Tanya said, gently.
People experiencing homelessness need time to register that you’re real — both in the social sense and the physical sense — before you can win their trust and help them find shelter and themselves again. Force generally fails. It creates distrust, and it is the distrust that leads to death.
For people experiencing homelessness, it usually takes a couple of dozen encounters before enough trust is built. And one bad encounter can reset the count to zero.
I’ve been driving the streets at midnight with safety workers downtown, begging people to come in from the cold. But they didn’t know me.
“You might die,” I whispered.
“I know. I’ll take my chances,” they would reply.
The problem I am looking at can only be solved by people who are willing to spend weeks and months of exquisitely sensitive trust-building work on the street. It is an answer that cannot be manufactured overnight. It is not solved with a weekend passing out food plates. It cannot be solved with an arrest. It requires patience and time. Most people can’t do it. I can’t do it.
Intown Collaborative Ministries can do it. Intown Collaborative Ministries does it.
This is Giving Tuesday. And this is one place I know a financial contribution works. You are probably not in a position to spend three months in constant communication with someone experiencing paranoia and schizophrenic delusions who needs to come in from the cold to save her life.
You do not have a relationship with someone like Dugger, the fellow who would beg on the sidewalk across the street from the Star Bar. If you’ve been to Little Five Points, you’ve seen him. We’ve all seen him. Some of us have even spoken to him.
Dugger died last week. Cancer. By the time they knew what was happening it was too late. I saw him three weeks ago in his spot.
An Intown Collaborative Ministries caseworker was the only one with him in the hospital. She held his hand as he died.
To contribute to Intown Collaborative Ministries, click here.
– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept.
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