Note: Today’s blog comes to us via Jenna, an intern that has been with us all year. Her time is coming to a close, so we’ve asked her to reflect upon her year spent at Gateway.
Last year, as my college graduation was fast approaching, I decided to commit to a yearlong service program called Mission Year. I was placed in Atlanta, in a small neighborhood south east of downtown. One of the main components of the program is to volunteer (almost) full-time at a local service agency- and that is how Jill and I became the co-directors of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau at The Gateway Center. Doesn’t sound overly crazy, right? Until you consider the fact that I am terrified of public speaking and I don’t have much experience. Then you understand the adventurous and challenging task that I was faced with. You also understand the task that Jill was faced with, co-directing a speakers’ bureau with someone who has no skills or experience.
I knew we were in for an adventure. What I didn’t know was how much our Bureau would change my outlook on life. To put it simply, our speakers are awesome. Everyone on the Bureau is either currently experiencing homelessness, or has experienced it in the past. They certainly understand the world in a way that I do not. At first I worried that my ignorance and lack of ability to fully comprehend their struggles would make it impossible for me to relate to them. As we got to know them, however, and continued to listen to their stories, that worry began to fade.
Everyone’s experience with homelessness is different, but most individuals face dehumanization. There’s a time when they don’t feel like anyone cares, or that anyone wants to be bothered with them, or that anyone recognizes that they are fully human. As you may imagine, it’s not a pleasant feeling. However, their feelings of dehumanization don’t have the power to change the fact that they are, in fact, valuable individuals. And it is precisely their value and their individuality that make their stories so inspiring and compelling. We’re called Faces of Homelessness, right? So naturally, one of our goals is to put a face to the issue of homelessness. We want every volunteer, student, business associate, and congregation member that we encounter to understand homelessness in a new way. In a personal way. We want them to have a name and a face and a memory of someone who has experienced it. So that the next time someone offers up a degrading stereotype in conversation, they can say, “Well, actually, I met this guy once…” Then, stereotypes continue to be challenged, and the public is consequently challenged to see individuals experiencing homelessness as just that: Individuals. Experiencing homelessness. Sounds a bit different from “those homeless people,” right?
Getting to know our speakers has changed my perspective on life in multiple ways. Their stories have changed the way that I view service agencies and ministries, but they have also challenged me on a much deeper level. They have become my friends, and that affects every conversation I have that revolves around homelessness. After experiencing their kindness, quirkiness, and strength, it is painful to be reminded of the way that society often portrays them. It is painful to be reminded of the stereotypes that I have formed over my life, and still struggle to undo. It’s rough, and it causes some very uncomfortable conversations. However, I am grateful for the discomfort. Not because I enjoy it, but because I am grateful for these people, who have helped me and shaped me in so many ways this year.
Everyone has a story. I wish I would have opened my ears a whole lot earlier.
Last year over 4,400 unique persons stayed at Gateway Center in their journey towards self-sufficiency and out of homelessness. $10 provides meals for a day for one of these men, women, and children. Every dollar counts. Make a donation today.