fbpx Skip to content

THE FACES OF HOMELESSNESS-Giving beyond the Holiday Season

1. Nicole, a 28 year old female, was a refugee from New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. Growing up with severe Crohn’s disease, Nicole had much of her small intestines removed at 9 years of age. Nicole’s mother was a drug addict and her father was absent. At age one, Nicole was placed in foster care, and she lived with 12 different foster parents in 18 years due to her behavior, her ileostomy bag, and related medical problems. When Nicole was 18 years old, she was released from state custody, but, at majority age, was left without medical coverage. A doctor in New Orleans was providing medical care pro-bono, but after the hurricane, he lost his private practice. No surgeon was willing to do free extensive intestine and bladder reconstruction.

When John Marriner, a homeless advocate at First Presbyterian Church (FPC), found Nicole, she was living in an abusive relationship with a man 10 years her senior. Things got worse for Nicole, and she fought back and was arrested and evicted. Nicole came to FPC looking for a place to stay and for assistance. FPC worked to get Nicole into temporary housing. John Marriner wrote to New Orleans for Nicole’s medical records and got her Georgia IDs. John Marriner then found Nicole a doctor to prescribe medication to get her stabilized, but no surgery was possible without insurance. When Nicole obtained her SSI benefits along with Medicaid, she was finally safe, sheltered and getting medical care. Nicole is, currently, stable but is unable to receive colon reconstruction due to the cost and limited reimbursement under Medicaid. Nicole, also, still receives medical supplies through an arrangement with a Pharmaceutical supplier.

2. Preston was brought to FPC’s attention by another homeless person, who had received help from the Church. Preston was 42 years of age and had aggressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at the stage when he lost bladder and bowel control and his ability to walk. Preston had been in and out of Grady Memorial Hospital but had no insurance for long-term treatment or therapy or rehab housing. When John Marriner went to see Preston, he was sitting in a wheelchair in a parking lot across from a homeless shelter. Because of Preston’s lack of bladder and bowel control, the shelter could not keep him. They did not have the professional medical staff help for Preston and considered his condition as unsanitary for others in the shelter.

It was a cold and rainy morning in mid-October when John Marriner introduced himself to Preston, who was not wearing any underwear or pants and was covered with a sheet that was soiled in his own feces. Preston was cold and wet and probably would not have survived many days in his condition. FPC made calls to physician staff at Grady Memorial Hospital, and Preston was placed in a rehab/nursing home. Preston had worn his socks so long that the skin was growing over them and the socks had to be cut off.

Preston was unable to travel to a social security disability office. So, John Marriner obtained status as his representative and did a telephone interview with the Social Security Administration (SSA) for supplemental security income (SSI) and Medicaid, which were granted after a few months. John Marriner then found a group home in Austell that would take him in. There, Preston lived with a house parent, along with 5 other disabled adults. John Marriner visited Preston often and gained his trust to acquire enough information to locate Preston’s family in Chicago. A number of years had passed after his onset of MS, and Preston had no contact with family over that time. Preston’s father, who made several visits to Atlanta, was able to have Preston relocated, near family, at a Chicago nursing home, where they could provide him with the necessary medical and family attention. Preston is now stable with appropriate medications.

3.Sharonda was a 24 year old female with Cerebral Palsy (CP). Her mother was in prison ever since Sharonda was a young girl and her only other relative was a grandmother, who was on welfare and was unable to support her. Sharonda had a two year old daughter by a boyfriend who was on drugs. Sharonda was in the hospital having a second child when she developed severe CP symptoms. She gained considerable weight with CP and was over 250 pounds. Child and Family Services removed the children from her and put them in temporary foster care.

Sharonda was left to reside in a woman’s night shelter and would make her way to a day shelter a few blocks away. (She was too weak to climb on the disability bus that was not handicap accessible, so she walked on her walker from one shelter to the next while others were able to ride). This took all of her strength and she was not progressing. She was very depressed upon losing her children and could not find assistance. One of the FP volunteers met Sharonda at the Atlanta Day Shelter. John Marriner was able to find Sharonda a subsidized apartment while her social security disability was pending.

John Marriner accompanied Sharonda to DFCS hearings in Cobb County and convinced the court that she could have supervised visitation with her children. Meanwhile, the Church was able to furnish Sharonda’s apartment before the court granted her temporary custody of her children at her new home. The social security disability benefits were approved, and Sharonda has received sufficient medical care to be independent and provide safe parental care for her children.

Sharonda is now living a fulfilling life as a caring mother. Her children are both in school and are, seemingly, well-adjusted. She has lost almost 100 pounds (“so I can keep up with my kids”) and is functioning well and is happy (“the kids are my life!”). Sharonda’s boyfriend has been clean after entering rehab with the the Church’s help, is a very involved parent, and is employed full-time. They are planning to be married when they get some money set aside. Sharonda is volunteering at the Atlanta Food Bank to give back for all that she has been able to achieve. As to what can be achieved to gain independence, Sharonda is now used as an example by Families First.

4. Robert was living on the streets when John Marriner first met him. He was about 58 years of age and had a distinctive gravelly voice from heavy smoking. ‘Rob’ did not ask for money but had a unique way of asking for help- “Would you like to buy a joke for fifty cents?”, he would ask with a smile. Robert had ambitions of being a stand-up comedian and kept a notebook of all his jokes. FPC was able to get Rob into an extended stay hotel and help him get food stamps. FPC was working toward getting him SSI, but his condition was not considered severe. Based upon drug use, Rob was denied social security disability benefits, since he had not been in rehab to curtail his drug activity.

Rob’s condition deteriorated without insurance. With the long wait for an appointment at Grady Memorial Hospital, he refused medical care. Rob had given up on getting out of homelessness. Rob’s parents were deceased and his only family member was a brother institutionalized in Milledgeville. Rob’s health continued to decline and his voice became weaker. He was diagnosed with throat cancer when John Marriner got him to a doctor. FPC placed Rob in a nursing home, when he, eventually, received his SSI for terminal cancer. Reverand Black and John Marriner shared visitation with Rob, but he was soon diagnosed with brain cancer.

Rob died the day before New Years in the nursing home, but, not alone, since the staff were great. Reverand Black and John Marriner always made Rob feel special too. After John Marriner went to the nursing home to get Rob’s few personal affects, the nurses were surprised that he was not his brother. Few of the residents ever received visitors except infrequent family members. Rob was cremated with the Church help, and John Marriner ended up being his next of kin. Rob died with aspirations of a career in comedy, as John Marriner wrote his jokes in his journal up to his final week on earth.

5. George was 58 years of age when he came to FPC. As a working alcoholic and drug addict, George had been fully employed for 40 years. Age, abuse of body, hepatitis and liver damage had caught up with him. He was unshaven, sick, still drinking, and barely surviving on the streets in the winter cold. When John Marriner befriended George, he took to the friendship and was willing to get some help. Although George had previously been through rehabilitation many times, John Marriner’s constant supervision encouraged him to give up alcohol and drugs except for pain medication. Eventually, John Marriner was able to get George off medications, so that he could act responsibly and start thinking about the future and possible medical treatment.

George was able to receive social security disability benefits, after John Marriner researched and documented a childhood bipolar condition that led to self-medication. (SSDI was granted because of the pre-existing condition). Based on his work history, George received $1100 per month in benefits. John Marriner was able to get George into a senior high-rise through Atlanta Public housing and has visited him two or three times per week. George had surgery for liver cancer, is on prescribed meds, and has been living independently.

With Medicaire accompanying SSDI, George has a gastroenterologist, cancer specialist and liver specialist, as well as a visiting nurse. George is now able to shop for himself and travel to visit a brother and family out of town. He is surviving with severe cirrhosis, stomach inflammation and medically controlled pain but, is, otherwise, doing well with proper medications. John Marriner and George have gone from client/mentor relationship to close friends. George is two years younger but is often mistaken for John Marriner’s father. Such is the difference in a hard life and an easier life without addiction and serious mental health issues.

6.Zaida, who is a 46 year old female, does not trust many people. She has mental health issues and frequent depression. When John Marriner met Zaida, she had been on the streets for 14 years. Zaida’s home was the back of a bagel store storage area, where she would get left over food from the manager, break down boxes, and keep the back lot clean. FPC had tried to help her for 4-5 years when John Marriner met her, but every time Zaida had a medical or mental health appointment she would disappear. FPC would then have to start her assistance over again. John Marriner talked to Zaida several times and bought her breakfast. Zaida told him that she ate out of dumpsters and felt like she was ‘invisible” on the street. Business people in the midtown area would turn their heads to avoid eye contact with her.

Zaida had the smell of a person without a change of clothes or a hair washing or a bath for many days. But, there was something special about Zaida, and she would end her sessions with John Marriner with a hug and a smile. She needed someone to care. John Marriner told Zaida that he would help her if she met him once a week, and as long as she did not flee, he would be there for her. She seemed to trust John Marriner more with each visit. John Marriner went to the consultative psychological exam and SSA District Office with Zaida, who had no confidence in herself or hope for a better life after so much time on the streets.

Zaida was able to get her social security disability benefits. She was at the Church, in a group meeting, when she received her first check. John Marriner interrupted the meeting to show her the first check, and she jumped on a chair and started screaming with excitement. He was dumbfounded after asking her what she was going to do next. She said “I am going to get my dignity and self-respect back!” The next day, Zaida took the social security benefits and checked into a motel, got a shower, and washed her hair. FPC got her used, but decent clothes, from their clothing bank. Zaida came back several days later looking like a new person, holding her head high and knowing that she was somebody! Fourteen years on the streets had become a habit; however, and Zaida does not feel comfortable yet being inside an apartment. That is the next step, and John Marriner told her FPC would help when she is ready, but, no rush!

7.Ronald was 40 years of age and extremely depressed. Ronald said he had never used alcohol or drugs but had nowhere to live. Lacking confidence in his own abilities, Ronald could not work due to lack of initiative and drive. He had been kicked out by his girlfriend and also by his mother, because they could not afford to support him. Robert was living in under a bridge in Midtown in a sleeping bag with 3-4 other homeless persons. Ronald came to FP for Sunday breakfast and sandwiches during the week. John Marriner, who had a chance to chat often with Ronald, learned about his mental condition and the institutions he had been in over the years.

Ronald was apologetic for being a nuisance, as he felt that he really didn’t deserve any better life than he had. John Marriner told Ronald that he would go with him to SSA consultative evaluations and other medical appointments. John Marriner also convinced Ronald that his mental illness was not his fault, and he could move from under the bridge to a better place if he would try. Ronald agreed if John Marriner would stay by his side each step of the way.

Ronald was able to qualify for social security disability benefits, because of the long history of mental illness. Housing for the mentally ill was almost non-existent after institutions were closed in the 1970s-80s. Those with mental illness were expected to go to outpatient treatment centers, take their medicine as prescribed and find their own places to live while trying to survive without any income for food, transportation or rent.

John Marriner went with Ronald to move his garbage bags of worldly possessions from under the bridge. A basement room in a run-down, unlicensed boarding room seemed like a palace to him. All Ronald wanted was a radio and new shoes to be happy. John Marriner opened a bank account for Ronald, and he saw things changing for the better. Ronald became less depressed and started to make contact again with his mother, who still cared what happened to him. Now that Ronald could pay his own expenses and help with the rent, he could come back home to live. Ronald still comes to visit John Marriner to get his SSI check. They part with a hand shake, a hug, and then a pat on each other’s back. John Marriner tells him, “I am proud of you.” Ronald smiles and says “I love you man.” Ronald says that he doesn’t want direct deposit, because he would rather get his monthly disability check from John Marriner.

This is not intended to be a compilation of all character types whom I, John Marriner, have encountered over four years as a regular volunteer at First Presbyterian Church nor are these in anyway a characterization of the typical homeless person. There is no specific type or reason why persons are homeless. In thirty plus years of working with the homeless, I have encountered hundreds who are male and female; 18 years to 70 years of age; college educated to illiterate; artists or musicians; addicted to drugs and alcohol or mentally ill or both (dual diagnosis is very common since illegal drugs are often easier to obtain than prescription medication); healthy, yet lost without hope; seriously ill and just fighting for survival; as well as veterans, who have PTSD or just problems adjusting to civilian life after exposure to war.

The main thing missing in their lives is a navigator/friend plus a facilitator/guide. Someone to accept them as they are and willing to invest time and show compassion where there has been little or none. I have a list of maybe fifty, whom I have escorted from homeless and pennilessness to being housed and income supported.

There is no magic formula and no great expertise-just a listening ear and a person with a knowledge of places to find direction and help. They need someone to trust, and this comes only by opening themselves up to being vulnerable. The homeless need a friend, not a referral and, if necessary, someone to accompany them to the places that they have been to previously but are expecting to be rejected from, because of the way they look or speak.

None of those encountered have desired homelessness (although the mentally ill may prefer it to socialization and others may have lost any hope for a change). Shelters are not a definitive alternative due to crime, disease and a lack of dignity. Family relationships are long past with burned bridges or just a matter of time and distance (the average client is age 40-60).

I have made many lasting friendships and also been taken advantage of and burned by a con or two. But, I have learned from them all and realized that many are smarter, wiser, and more creative and talented then myself. I have been there-homeless-myself, with just a car for shelter, along with a sandwich and a candy bar for the day’s rations. Not for long, fortunately. I had an escape route through confidence that this time would soon pass with the knowledge of love and available support systems.

That is all that I can offer these travelers-a temporary support system; an oasis to become renewed and refreshed for their journey. That is what I need from God: knowing that I am loved, forgiven and promised hope for the future. Our example is from Jesus that we care for each other, as we have been cared for; to walk with our brothers and sisters on this journey and assist them along the way.

Where all the others have gone I do not know. I know that I have helped some get transportation to medical care and appointments; I have helped some get such needs such as diabetic supplies, blood pressure medicine, heart medicine, etc. I have given some a meal, a coat, or a pair of work boots to start work. I have given some a prayer or a smile or a word of hope. Who knows where these aids have taken them. I hope they find someone else at the next turn to send them further down the road.

Kathleen Flynn and staff would like to help any homeless person take a positive turn in his/her life by applying for and obtaining SSI (Title XVI); SSDI (Title II); Widows/Widowers benefits; Disabled Adult Child benefits or Child Survivor benefits. Please call 404-479-4431 or visit our website at www.kathleenflynnlaw.com.

Back To Top