Beyond the Stories: My Year at the Gateway Center
By: Jillian Barker
When I was accepted into Mission Year and found out I was placed at the Gateway Center, the largest facility in Atlanta of it’s kind, I was anxious. I did not know what exactly to expect. Coming from Chicago, I had seen a lot of street homelessness, but I did not have much knowledge on the working poor. In the process of training to take over the ‘Faces of Homeless Speakers’ Bureau’ (which is similar to Toastmasters), we met many speakers who shared their experiences with us. Being from Chicago where you do not ask people personal things about their lives straight away for concern of being intrusive or seeming judgmental, I was curious as to how to go about that whole process, and the Speakers’ Bureau was my answer.
Through the bureau, I have met and truly gotten to know many people and their stories. And although some were stories of drug and alcohol addictions, just as many were not. Some had chased dreams of a better life in Atlanta that did not come true as they planned. Others simply lost jobs or homes in ways they had no control over. One guy was an entrepreneur, but thanks to a police error and 72 days in jail, lost everything and had to start all over. Many of them are also currently employed and working in social service to help others get out of homelessness.
One of the first lessons I learned was language usage. During a recent visit from my brother, I was explaining to him as I had heard it put many times before, it is more sensitive to describe those who are homeless as ‘persons experiencing homelessness’ instead of saying ‘homeless people’. First, I want to acknowledge their humanity: they are people with thoughts, feelings, and opinions, but also with dreams and desires. Second, they are indeed experiencing homelessness: homelessness does not define who they are or their personal character. To put it simply, they are a person without a home of their own.
Once I got comfortable with the language, I felt more comfortable attempting conversations. Once the conversations started flowing, then I was able to move pass the base desire to “know their stories,” as if they were material to be consumed. I was really getting to know them as people, and eventually as friends. When you are friends with someone, you share yourself, too, creating a more reciprocal relationship and simultaneously destroying an often dangerous giver-receiver power dynamic. When that dynamic is gone, everyone is equal—status and title are stripped away. You stop trying to analyze people like case studies and you try your best to live life together, sharing real moments where you are your true self and they are theirs. That is all that is required for relationship to blossom and thrive.
As my year draws to a close as an intern at GWC, I am grateful for the many ways I have seen changes in myself and others for the best. I have been stretched and pulled, broken and encouraged. I have shared myself and been warmly received; and others have shared with me and it has been an honor.
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.