The Gateway Center is housed in Atlanta’s former Pre-trial Detention Center. Years ago, on my first occasion to walk through the mostly vacant building, I was chilled by the feel of the former jail. Everything was painted a dull, drab battleship gray color. I had never seen so much concrete and steel in one building. The cells, bathrooms, and common areas were marked by inmate graffiti, some of which I didn’t understand and some of which was more than clearly understandable, actually, too understandable. The group walked and talked about how this 110,000 square feet, four story building of concrete and steel might be transformed into a homeless services center. The thought came to my mind that what once had been a building that “held people captive,” could become a building that “sets people free” – free from bonds of homelessness! It was an exciting thought then, and continues to be my daily challenge and opportunity.
I will never forget the day that construction began. Such days are always exciting for any new venture. Such was no less true for what would become the Gateway Center fourteen months, later. What amazed me most was the amount of demolition that went into the early months of renovation. Sledge hammers, jack-hammers, saws, acetylene torches, and welding cutters, were the tools of the day. There was a constant stream of two-wheeled carts that moved out of the building laden with chunks of concrete and steel rebar. Thick, steel plated doors were cut from their hinges. Sparks flew. Dust filled the air. Walking through the building was like unto a West Texas dust storm accompanied by more noise than a stadium filled with energized sports fans cheering their team in a national play-off game.
Finally, the demolition was over. A pall fell over the building and the air slowly cleared. What was left was the shell of a building that would be transformed into one of the largest homeless services centers in the southeast United States. It would not be glitzy. It would not have the look of new. It would not even be like a one-star hotel, much less a five-star one. There would be little carpet or fine furnishings. But, it would be a functional, clear, airy, and bright place in which to confront the raw edges of homelessness, drill down into its causes, and help persons begin or continue the journey out of homelessness. It would be a place of hope. A place of hope renewed. “What once was a place that held people captive, would truly become a place where people were set free” — free from homelessness. I thought it then, and I believe it now. It is the thought that constantly reverberates through my mind.
Construction workers quickly went to work sweeping the floors and removing the remaining demolition debris. Soon, the floors and walls were visible, completely visible. What remained looked like the pock-marked surface of the moon. Gashes, divots, jagged edges, deep cuts, and scared concrete and steel were the order of the day. As the renovation continued many of these raw demolition marks faded and were covered or made smooth. But, one glaring exception remained – the scared, pock-mocked, marred concrete floors.
Renovation dollars were limited. It was continually necessary through the months to evaluate and re-evaluate their highest and best use. Cosmetic corrections continually feel to the bottom of the renovation list. Ultimately, the floors would simply be painted, albeit a brilliant blue color that splendidly covered the remains of the previous drag gray. Only the largest of the pock-marks were being filled and sanded. Throughout the building one-inch and larger steel rebar that had originally been a jail construction staple, would be visible in the floor where it had been cut and concrete chipped away by the strong-armed construction team. It would be somewhat, kind of smooth to the touch, at least no sharp edges, and it would be painted over with that brilliant blue paint. But, they were yet visible. A reminder of what once had been.
As the days passed and the initial renovation was completed and building at full operation, I had many opportunities to look at the floor and ponder its meaning. Like my life – and the lives of so many who entered the Gateway Center – the floor was symbolic of the mares and scars that are so prevalent in life’s journey. A divot here and a jagged slash their; a cut that heals but leaves it reminder mark, is the experience of so many. Most of us can identify with such. Often, these scars, like the Gateway Center floor, are smoothed somewhat by time and painted over by life’s better days so that they are not so glaring to the average passerby – as are the neon lights at your favorite drive-in diner. Yet, they are still there. Scars and mares of life, speaking into them, and helping men, and women, and families move beyond them is a part of daily life at the Gateway Center. Scars may be physical, emotional, or spiritual in nature. But, nonetheless they are scars, and all scars leave there lingering life residue.
Fast forward the calendar, it is five years later. Friends visit the Gateway Center and say, “Vince, you need to refinish these concrete floors. Put down some tile or carpet. Do something!” I smile, think, and say, “Just because you live an Athenian life-style, doesn’t mean that some of us are not SPARTANS!” But, ultimately I acquiesce. The capital improvement campaign is successful and concrete floors are refinished or covered in tile. Except for a small patch of floor, that remains raw and unrepaired. It is a daily reminder that people join those of us that are scared at the Gateway Center, with their life scares and mars. And, we join together to work a plan that moves men, women, and families out of homeless. We celebrate the reality that we are all made, marred, and remade. It is daily life at the Gateway Center. You only have to look down at the scars on the floor, before you look up, to see the reality of change and new beginnings. That’s what scars on the floors are all about!