On March 17, Gateway Center employee Bill Smith came to speak to University students and share his personal account of homelessness. In foster care since he was six-months-old, Smith is a survivor of sexual assault and watched his older brother commit suicide before the age of ten.
Smith was able to share his story because of the work of Emory’s Homeless Outreach and Awareness Project (HOAP). According to Co-President of HOAP and Goizueta Business School junior Paula Cheng, HOAP aims to break a lot of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding homelessness and people experiencing homelessness. The organization also hopes to personalize individuals’ experiences with homelessness and instill a more interpersonal understanding in the Emory community.
HOAP’s Hear My Story events give students the opportunity to hear personal accounts of homelessness. The individuals who come to speak are those the organization has built a relationship with over time or those who Director of Community Relation and Volunteer Services for the Gateway Center Bec Cranford helps them to connect with.
At 24, Smith moved to Lexington, Va. on the promise of a job. He began experiencing homelessness after the loss of this opportunity.
“There were days it felt good, because homelessness can be addictive,” Smith said. “It’s addictive because you don’t have to do anything, but then you don’t know how to get out.”
Smith’s unique perspective when it comes to homelessness is exemplary of the perspectives HOAP aims to share.
Smith moved to Charlotte, N.C. years later and found the church that he says saved him. As a member of the church, Smith began volunteering with organizations such as United Way.
“I realized that I had a voice and could be a voice for the homeless,” Smith said.
Smith has not been homeless since 2007 and now works for Gateway Center. According to gatewayctr.org, the official mission of Gateway Center is to provide a supportive and compassionate setting where individuals can receive the tools, programs and services they need to end their homelessness. Gateway Center aims to do this through partnerships with like-minded individuals, service agencies and business, civic and faith community leaders.
“Bill Smith is an advocate and a true activist for people who are experiencing homelessness. And that’s birthed out of his own lived experience as well as his deep rooted faith,” Cranford said. “Over the past four years, he has just grown in compassion and has continued to do great work in Atlanta.”
Smith is one of the many people who have experienced homelessness and has spoken to university students through HOAP.
“The first event I went to was actually really similar to the one that we just had a couple weeks ago. It’s called a Hear My Story event,” Cheng said. “I just remember hearing a veteran come in and talk about his whole life experience. It was really powerful, and that’s just how I got plugged into [HOAP].”
In addition to the Hear My Story events, HOAP does on-campus activities, such as pairing with Emory’s Residence Hall Association (RHA) for the RHA Spring Festival, as well as off campus activities, such as morning outreaches. For these morning outreaches, HOAP partners with United Way and Gateway Center, among others. Students go out into the streets to invite people experiencing homelessness to come and stay in certain shelters that they have or housing that they may offer.
The organization has also participated in programs like Homelessness Counts for which members went out and surveyed people on the streets in order to help with data collection on those experiencing homelessness.
“In the future, I would like to see HOAP just grow a lot more,” Cheng said. “We’re definitely a really small organization and don’t really have the resources or just the voice to be a strong presence on campus, but maybe partnering with Volunteer Emory more or other organizations [can] grow [HOAP’s] mission and reach around Emory.”
Cheng believes that it is really easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of college life, but that hearing the stories of those who have experienced homelessness can serve as a refreshing perspective for University students.
“HOAP just reminds you that your role as a college student isn’t just on the college campus. You have a responsibility to not only learn from school, but also from other people and other experiences and really make an impact outside of the community.”
One way HOAP impacts the community is through one-on-one aid. According to Cheng, Fun Town is the site of an old white-only abandoned amusement park where many people who are experiencing homelessness now live. She described the organization’s relationship to the area and a man who is currently experiencing homelessness in it.
“Emory HOAP has a relationship with one individual named Joe who lives there and through generations of the executive board, we’ve kept in contact with him, and we just go and visit him and talk to him,” Cheng said. “Last week, we went and put up a tarp and brought him some food and just talked to him and helped him with small things that he needed help with, because he’s a 70-year-old man living by himself. We can help an individual person rather than an organization, which I think is cool.”
Cheng grew up in Atlanta, so she has grown up seeing the dichotomy of the suburbs and downtown Atlanta, where homelessness is particularly prevalent. According to United Way of Greater Atlanta’s website , each year, there are approximately 2,100 homeless people in Greater Atlanta. One of the many lessons Cheng has taken away from HOAP is how to treat those who are experiencing homelessness. Don’t avert your eyes, don’t ignore them and don’t pretend like they don’t exist. Instead, just say, “Hello” and make eye contact or be friendly. Cheng says that these small gestures make a really big difference.
“When you approach homeless folks, you ought to treat them the way you want to be treated,” Smith said. “Never try to undiginify a person.”