The River team, from left, David Gillespie, Jean Miller, Julia daSilva, and Chris Harris.
The River team, from left, David Gillespie, Jean Miller, Julia daSilva, and Chris Harris.

By Sue G. Collins

Collecting socks, wet wipes, warm clothes and fresh food for the homeless is, thankfully, not that big of a challenge. The hard work is building relationships and trust with people living on the streets. Living outside of the system.

It’s this understanding and compassion that fuels The River, a social justice arm of the progressive Virginia-Highland Church located at the corner of Virginia Avenue and Ponce Place.

Since it’s inception last May, David Gillespie and his small team have built relationships with the homeless community that lives at Piedmont and Ralph McGill Parkway in Downtown. They don’t judge. They don’t consider themselves to be better people with purer souls than the dozen or so humans lying on the ground with their worn bundles of worldly possessions.

“It takes time to build these friendships, but once you spend time on the ground, their needs will resonate in your gut,” Gillespie says. “Then, on a good day, there will be a window open, a short opportunity to dip into a very dark empty place and help with their change.”

It’s taken The River team months to build the confidence and skills to be able to listen openly and help the homeless get driver’s licenses, navigate medical paperwork and just stay alive. It’s also taken the homeless community the same amount of time to learn to trust the members of the outreach.

Julia daSilva visited the church in 2014 when she moved from Boston and believes there is no monolithic experience leading to homelessness. “Pretty much everyone who is living outside faces a similar set of challenges – bureaucratic red tape and official indifference that make getting off the street that much harder than it already is,” she’s learned. “Homelessness is a systemic problem, and it requires a systemic solution.”

The River’s “system” is simple: Spend time truly getting to know the people outside.

Then, get them to believe they don’t have to live on the street. “These people are so beaten down, their dignity has been stripped, their confidence in the world has been shredded,” says Gillespie, who owns his own executive recruitment company in Inman Park and is helping grow The River from his car and church pews. “Then, we want to help them to think about where they want to be: Sober? Employed? Home with family? Living without crack?”

Gillespie holds great hope for continued collaborations with other street ministry groups like the Central Outreach & Advocacy Center (where volunteers help find birth certificates and identification needed to open doors to employment, healthcare and housing) and The Living Room (offering housing, healthcare and hope for people living with HIV/AIDS). Gillespie says the Grady Hospital staff also treats everyone with the utmost respect. But first, people living on the street need a “letter of homelessness.” That’s a real thing. “Then, with a Grady card, prescriptions and care are available,” he explains. “But, it’s very hard to get one of these letters from service agencies and certain clergy.”

Rev. Michael Piazza says The River is unique. “We are trying to not simply address the symptoms, but to develop relationships with human beings who have ended up on the streets. We want to get to know them and find out how we might help them change their circumstances and their lives for good.”

DaSilva says The River encourages everyone to be open to interactions with the homeless they encounter. “Get out the door a few minutes early and buy that guy you always see a coffee. Get one for yourself, too. Introduce yourself and ask if you can sit down. Talk about the Hawks. And then try not to think about him next time it dips below freezing at night. And then in the morning get busy,” says daSilva.

To volunteer, email The River at david.gillespie@hotmail.com and visit VHChurch.org.

 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.