By Bob Hope, Special Contributor…
ATLANTA—I was homeless for a night. It was Nov. 15, and along with about 60 other Atlanta civic leaders and family members, my wife Susan and I participated in a “Sleep Out” event to bring awareness to the plight of homeless teens.
My first real hint of what it must be like to live with no bed or shelter came early. The evening started with a candlelight vigil at Centennial Park. I was dressed for the part with old jeans, a ragged sweatshirt and a knit cap. I was ready to sleep on the street.
During the candlelight vigil, I needed to find a restroom quickly. After wandering around the park to no avail, I realized how hard it was for anyone living on the street just to find a toilet. I eventually had the bright idea of going across the street to the Omni Hotel, where I was certain there would be a public restroom.
As I was waiting for the light to change on Marietta Street, I was approached by an old man who looked like he lived on the streets. My first reaction was to back away, assuming he would beg for money. Then I realized he didn’t see me as a source for funds. He was approaching me as a friend.
“It’s a tough life for people like us,” he said, thinking that we shared something in common. “I hope you are doing well. Regardless of how bad things may be, at least we are alive.” I nodded in agreement. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was in disguise.
I left my new friend to enter the hotel, where I was quickly stopped by the bellman. It was clear to him I wasn’t a guest. Luckily, I had my identification badge as a “Sleep Out” participant. He directed me to the men’s room, and I was soon on my way back to the park.
At the park amphitheater, we were holding candles and singing hymns with the group. As the homeless teens began to speak to us, I realized they weren’t what I was expecting. They were thoughtful and articulate. They were white, black and Hispanic. They were bright, clear-eyed and attractive. None of them ever thought they would find themselves without a home.
One boy said his parents died when he was a child and he was sent to live with an uncle. The family really didn’t want him and he was soon “couch surfing” from home to home, staying short periods with his friends until he could find a job. When no job was found, he no longer could find a place to live other than on the streets. He wasn’t bitter. He was hopeful his life would change for the better.
An attractive young woman said she was one of 13 children and became a ward of the state. Luckily, at age 7, she was adopted by her foster parents. Her life was privileged and happy. That changed when she became a teenager. Her parents took in another foster child. He was outgoing and popular, and the star football player at her high school. At home, he molested her for two years. He threatened her not to tell, and she didn’t, thinking that no one would believe her word against his. When she finally told her parents, they believed her. The police also responded. The boy is now in jail.
She was a good student and earned a college scholarship, but the emotional injuries were deep. She “went wild” at college, drinking and taking drugs. She was kicked out of school, returned home. But her parents couldn’t handle her problems either. She was soon living on the streets.
She knew if something dramatic didn’t happen to change her life, she would become another casualty. She found a home for homeless teens called Covenant House. At the time, there were only 15 beds and with a waiting list of nearly 200. She was accepted to the program and has since earned her certification as a medical practitioner. She is working and soon will be living on her own, this time in her own bed and with a steady job.
Just over a year ago, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates spoke to the 500-member Rotary Club of Atlanta, a club that includes the top business and civic leaders.
She shocked the room with hard facts about the dark side of the city. Atlanta has become the child trafficking capital of the world. Nearly a thousand teens sleep on the streets every night, and predators view Atlanta’s homeless teens as a business opportunity. Young women and men are captured and sold into the sex trade. One young woman who recently found Covenant House started on the streets of Atlanta, was kidnapped and sold to a pimp in Texas, then sold again and moved to New Orleans and then sold back to Atlanta. She finally escaped and found Covenant House.
As the home of the busiest airport in the world and the hub of three interstate freeways, Atlanta provides easy access for shipping human beings anywhere in the world. As Atlanta has become what Bangkok was, a sex-trafficking capital, it also has become drug infested. Atlanta once bought its drugs from Miami. Now Miami buys from Atlanta.
Ms. Yates alerted Atlanta’s leadership to an ugly problem, and the civic leaders responded. The Rotarians gathered to discuss what could be done. The CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was invited from Washington, D.C., to speak to the club, but also to meet with community leaders. With such a large number of teens on the streets, the only organization caring for them was the tiny 15-bed Covenant House.
A bigger program was needed, which meant the Covenant House would need a new home that could handle at least 100 teens at various stages of transition into normal living.
Allison Ashe is executive director of Covenant House and John Ridall is chairman of the board. Both are members of Northside United Methodist Church. With the leadership of Rotary Club of Atlanta, Leadership Atlanta and several prominent Atlanta companies, an old Atlanta city school was found. The facility, which had a $4 million price tag, had been converted to a living facility for delinquent children and needed updating.
The tour of the new campus was impressive. It covers seven acres with several buildings and has a large area for an urban garden. The place could not be more perfect if it was designed from scratch. It has sleeping facilities for more than 100, dining and meeting areas, classrooms and even a gymnasium. In fact, the Atlanta Hawks development coaching staff organized a game between the teens and our group of street sleepers. I couldn’t keep score, but the teens won handily.
We then went outside to start our night on the streets. It was cold, damp and uncomfortable. We were provided a sleeping bag, a cardboard box and a quilted blanket. We were told we could bring only a small pillow and our clothing. None of us seemed to know exactly what to do. We were all slightly intimidated.
The drive to Covenant House from Centennial Park went through areas of town that I am certain few of us have ever seen before. It is a side of town where people with homes struggle to survive. People without homes really struggle.
After the tour, we went outside to start our night on the streets. It was cold, damp and uncomfortable. We were given a sleeping bag, a cardboard box and a quilted blanket. We were told we could bring only a small pillow and our clothing. None of us seemed to know exactly what to do. We were all slightly intimidated.
The group included executives from many of Atlanta’s biggest companies along with the CEO of Atlanta’s convention bureau, a former Secret Service agent who guarded several Presidents, the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and some TV reporters. It was an eclectic group, but none had done anything like what they were about to experience.
Susan was far more confident in setting up her bedding than I was. I commented that there were no instructions for the sleeping bag, and the others laughed. They obviously were more experienced campers. I looked for the right spot among my choices of dirt, pavement or cement. I picked cement because, while the ground was softer, it was wet and cold. The cement was hard but dry. Neither was comfortable.
I surmised that cement retained heat, which I guessed was why city temperatures are warmer than rural ones on cold nights. I wasn’t sure, but that was my guess. Susan and I set up on cement.
Some of the group went to sleep early. I stayed up as late as I could by telling and listening to stories. It was a delay to keep from crawling into the cold sleeping bag. Finally, at 2 a.m., I gave sleeping a try. I was certain I didn’t sleep a wink. I struggled three times to walk to a bathroom in the building. First time I put on my shoes, which were really cold. The next two times I walked in my socks. Even if they got wet, that seemed better than putting on cold shoes.
I was sure I didn’t sleep, but found out I was wrong when Susan shook me awake at 5:30 a.m. to tell me I was the only one still sleeping. The others were packing up. And, besides, there was a TV camera set up right next to my pillow. I was in the way. If I didn’t look like a real street person the night before, I definitely looked that way now. In my disheveled state, I was immediately interviewed “live from the streets” by 11 Alive. I haven’t had the nerve to watch that interview. It is scary to think how I must have looked and heaven knows what I said.
The story is an example of why we slept outside that night. It was to bring attention to a very sad reality of homeless teens.
In my case, I agreed to do it at first because my friend Clark Dean asked me to, and we do a lot of things together. Susan is more attuned to the needs of others and made the issue more real to me. However, the experience of meeting youngsters who actually lived on the streets was eye opening. These are very ordinary kids. They needed nurturing and love while growing up, but there was no love in their lives to be found.
Now, hopefully, that will change for many of them.
Mr. Hope is president and co-founder of Hope-Beckham, Inc., a national public relations firm. He and his wife, Susan, are members of First UMC in Decatur, Ga. This essay appeared first in the North Georgia Advocate, a publication of the North Georgia Conference of the UMC.