By Gerhard Schneibel
There are two worlds in metro Atlanta: one filled with people well provided for and protected by the law, and one filled with homeless people whose lives are subject to violent ends. It’s much easier to slip from the former into the latter than it is to escape a life of addiction, crime and vagrancy, say residents of the Trinity House in downtown Atlanta.
Sandy Springs resident Tom Garner, the executive director of Trinity Community Ministries, said what the 36 men living at the Trinity House share is a background of homelessness and addiction.
Sidney White, a 41-year-old native of Atlanta, has lived in the 36-bed transitional shelter for men since October. He was brought up in an intact family and graduated from East Atlanta High School in 1986 after lettering in basketball, baseball and football. He had scholarship offers to play college sports and even a tryout with the Kansas City Royals.
“I always try to be a pleaser,” he said. “In high school — I’m a popular guy — I was always popular. It just started going bad. It just started going downhill.”
White has three children, the oldest of whom is 27. At one point their mother became very sick, something White couldn’t deal with. He was heavily addicted to drugs and homeless.
“I was embarrassed to let my family know I had got back on drugs,” he said. “I just thank God for being here. It’s a blessing, really. I just want to get back on track so I can take care of my kids like I’m supposed to.”
Each man progresses through the Trinity House program at a different pace and typically graduates in 12 to 24 months. Graduates have to be clean and sober, employed, and living in their own apartment or house.
“I would without hesitation say you can’t stereotype the background of people that come in or any limitations on when they go out. The important thing is for them to get control of themselves,” Garner said. “The goal of everything we do is to move people from homeless to self-sustaining and homebound, different from some programs that simply enable people to remain homeless.
“Right now in the city of Atlanta, if you wanted to give up your job, you could find at least two meals a day. … You could find clothes, and you could have a place to stay at night. Now you’ve got no responsibility, but your basic human needs are met. You’re fed, sheltered and clothed. If you get somebody that’s in a situation where they’ve lost their self-esteem or lost their desire, then it’s very easy to move over and maintain that lifestyle.”
Buckhead resident David Smith, who has been a member of the Trinity House board of directors for more than three years, said: “At the end of the day, these folks that are homeless are really no different than we are. For the the grace of God, we’re not in their situation, and we tend to stereotype them instead of reaching out. Recognizing them as people is one of the fundamental things that we do here.”
James Holt is 41. He grew up in a broken home, “spent more time in the street than I did with either of my parents,” and went to prison three months after graduating high school.
“I’m the baby of the family, and my brother and sister used to jump on me all the time because I was little,” he said. “So when I got big enough, I just started hitting back.”
Fighting was exhilarating, and committing crimes gave him a way to fit in, he said. He became a heavy drug user in prison.
“There’s more drugs in prison than there are out on the street. Once you get down the road, you can get anything you want,” he said. “My drug problem stayed with me. I was stopped, but I couldn’t stay stopped.”
Between ages 19 and 32, Holt was a free man for a total of about two years. He was shot twice and stabbed and served his last felony sentence from 2000 to 2001.
“I’ve lived a barbaric and volatile lifestyle for most of my life,” he said. His biggest fear is “dying in my addiction, being caught up and never really experiencing life. Because I’ve really just been existing for the majority of my life. I hadn’t really been living.”
Holt discovered the Trinity House while working for his brother’s lawn service and cutting weeds in a lot across Bell Street from the house. It is within sight of the downtown connector and used to be the Hanley Funeral Home, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s body was prepared before his funeral at nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Holt lived at the Trinity House from October 2007 until July. A woman he knew from rehab and with whom he was in a relationship was put out of the facility she was staying in.
“I didn’t want her on the street,” he said. “I came upon the bright idea: If I leave the Trinity House and just get us an apartment, then I’d be putting all my money in the same place.”
When she relapsed, so did he. He re-entered the Trinity program less than a month later, but he was back as a “green shirt,” a beginner.
“That’s where my family is. That’s where my brothers are,” he said. “I fell in a hole. They won’t go down in the hole with me, but they’ll stand around the top with their hands out.”
The challenge for counselors at the Trinity House, many of whom came through the program themselves, is helping each participant reverse the effects of a series of bad decisions and misfortunes.
“People who remain homeless are a cost to society,” Garner said. “The biggest pitfall is for them to get back with the characters that got them in trouble in the first place.”
Finding work and keeping it are keys to success, although doing so can be difficult for a person with a criminal record, a history of drug abuse and little education. Much of what is available isn’t desirable or well paid.
Still, most Trinity House residents start work within 90 days of entering the program, which has contacts with companies willing to hire them. They work as landscapers, in construction and at carwashes, and their employers have to understand not to deride their often fragile self-esteem.
“If you refer somebody to the wrong place, they get frustrated, and that’s it. You’ve got to start all over again,” Garner said.
Once the money starts to come in, though, Trinity House counselors keep a watchful eye over their charges and teach them how to make a budget and live by it. The money they save while enrolled in the program is later used to rent an apartment, Garner said, and the remaining structure of a life is built on that foundation.
Smith said that with every person restored to a responsible life, the cycle of neglect in families is diminished.
“We want them to go back and be the father to their children, to be a PTA member, to be a dad coaching sports and helping with homework,” he said. “We want them to be able to be a role model going forward.”