One of the most common topics that comes up anytime the subject of homelessness is discussed is meals. We assume that if someone is homeless, they are hungry. We assume they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Meals are the most visible part of what Atlanta Mission provides, but there’s far more to it than serving meals.
Atlanta Mission, at The Sherpherd’s Inn in downtown Atlanta, right across the street from the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke, and the Center for Civil & Human Rights complexes at Centennial Olympic Park, serves over 1,000 meals each day to homeless people, all of whom have a different story and are on a different journey. Anyone can come and get breakfast or dinner any day of the week, any time of the year. However, it’s what goes on inside the kitchen that can make a difference in these lives.
A short while ago, a former resident of the Shepherd’s Inn took over the management of the kitchen at the facility. Because he once ate his meals there, he brought an entirely different perspective to how the kitchen should operate. Too often on the streets of the city, the men who eat a meal at the Shepherd’s Inn are treated like cattle, dehumanized so that we don’t have to face the reality that they are real people just like you and me who made poor decisions, and “but for the grace of God go I…”
The first thing he did was change out the trays – you know the ones, with the little square compartments like we used in elementary school? – for regular real dinner plates.
“This isn’t a cafeteria. It’s a kitchen. We may be the only family some of these men have. Let’s make them feel like it’s home. When you’re at home, you eat dinner on a plate.”
Next, he implemented something that seems very out of the ordinary at what most people commonly refer to as “a soup kitchen” or “a homeless shelter.” The Shepherd’s Inn has a salad bar. Why on earth would you put a salad bar at a homeless shelter? As I noted before, every person who gets even one meal at The Shepherd’s Inn is where they are because of decisions made along the way…sometimes one decision, but usually a long series of small decisions that culminated in that person having to make life work without a roof over their head.
[Tweet “Why on earth would you put a salad bar at a homeless shelter?”]
It’s those decision-making skills that are at the core of the programs that Atlanta Mission implements in the lives of those who are accepted into their Personal Development Program. Giving an individual the power to make a small decision on their own gives them the practice and confidence to make a good decision outside the safer confines of the Shepherd’s Inn. Choosing between a regular meal and a salad is a safe decision. Not much bad can result from that choice, and yet it’s a choice that the people who come to Atlanta Mission for a meal must make on their own.
What do you enjoy doing most at 4AM? Most people will quickly answer “sleeping.” Would that change if you were able to do something for someone who really needed it with people who love you? The men who work in the kitchen at The Shepherd’s Inn have a different outlook on that 4AM hour. For these men, it’s their joy to rise early and prepare breakfast for hundreds of their brethren. They laugh together, work together, and they pray together.
There’s nothing harder than trying to do life alone. Imagine how hard it must be to do life alone with no home. These men have traveled many different journeys to get where they are today, but here in this kitchen at 4AM, they are friends and brothers. They have a community that they have never known before.
That’s part of why these men are happy to get up at 4AM and go to work for their brothers and sisters. The other parts include more intangibles that, while we can’t see them and many times take them for granted, rebuild the spirits of these men.
In casual conversations, when we meet someone new, we ask “what do you do?” We don’t ever say, “tell me who you are,” because for most of us, our identity is in what we do day in and day out. But if you don’t have a home, and you don’t have a job, who are you? Too many times, the word “homeless” is substituted for what a person is, rather than being used to describe their current, and often temporary, situation.
[Tweet “For those who rise and serve in the middle of the night, this job is what they do, and it serves as their identity, their purpose. “]
When we have a purpose, we attend to it. When we attend to a task over and over and over, we gain experience and confidence in that task. Those who man the kitchen on a daily and nightly basis are gaining experience in starting, doing, and completing a meaningful task on a daily basis. Many of these men have held meaningful employment prior to this current occupation at Atlanta Mission; however, the decisions that they made pulled them away from consistent experience.
As part of Atlanta Mission, each man has the opportunity to get good at something, to understand the need for attention to certain details that matter in a task. They learn a trade, a skill, a job, and a new attitude towards work that will ultimately help them wherever they go next, after they graduate.
In the kitchen, part of that experience, that trade, that skill, is a new understanding of the value of food and where it really comes from. All the food served at The Shepherd’s Inn is either donated or locally grown. Donations in the form of actual food or monetary donations for food come from people like you and me. When we work hard and create income, if we live within our own means, then we have the power and capacity to give in this way.
So while support for Atlanta Mission is mostly from donations from people like you and me, it is also part of their culture to create sustainable means of providing food for people who are homeless. The new and growing trend of urban gardening is not lost on Atlanta Mission. The lot across Centennial Olympic Park Drive from The Shepherd’s Inn is known as the Techwood Community Garden. The residents of The Shepherd’s Inn help maintain the gardens there, and grow vegetables that are served at the meals that they provide each day.
We hear on a daily basis in the high tech startup world that culture matters. Culture is the only thing that is truly in the control of the leadership of any organization. The culture at Atlanta Mission is about far more than providing food and shelter. It’s about changing and restoring the lives of the people, the individuals, who come to a decision to make a change in their lives.
[Tweet “those dates are some of the 363 days each year when there are not people there to sit with and talk to”]
We, too, as citizens of Atlanta, have the ability to make decisions regarding homeless people as well. Many times, we seek to serve at some place like Atlanta Mission at Thanksgiving or Christmas. We want to feed the homeless on those occasions, and there is no harm in that. However, after spending several weeks getting to know both the people who run Atlanta Mission and several of the people who are currently living there or have graduated and begun the next chapter of their lives, I would encourage anyone who is reading this post to serve, not on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but on March 19th or October 4th or June 24th or January 9th.
Those dates have no special meaning, except that those dates are some of the 363 days each year when there are not people there to sit with and talk to these people who don’t currently have a roof over their heads. Yes, of course they need food, clothing, and shelter, but they can get each of those from various places including Atlanta Mission.
What they cannot get on a regular basis is a friend to talk to, because life isn’t easy on your own, and it’s even harder when you’re alone with no home and no friends.