Last week, I met a woman named Nakia. Or actually, first I met her son, an adorable and well-behaved boy of four named Jahking.
I was sitting in a shaded corner on a coffee shop terrace with my laptop when he showed me his toy truck. His mother was on the phone, but she kept a close eye on him as she paced back and forth, back and forth, talking. It didn’t take me long to hear her conversation was not pleasant. She was working her way down a list of emergency shelters she’d gotten from a local police station, trying to find a bed for herself and her son.
While Jahking wolfed down a box of doughnut holes, Nakia shared her story. She’d lost her job, was evicted from her apartment, lost pretty much everything except what she could cart away in a couple of Hefty bags. A recent transport to Atlanta, she didn’t have local family or a support system to fall back on, and her savings didn’t last long. She and Jahking were literally on the streets as of noon that day.
How hard could it be? I thought. Atlanta is a big city, with an extensive support system for the needy. Together we called the rest of the shelters on her list.
As it turns out, finding a bed in this town is like winning the lottery, and here’s why ::
On any given night in Atlanta, there are some 10,000 homeless people — and more than 40 percent of those are women and children — and a shortage of 1,700 beds.
Nakia’s “problem” was that she wasn’t beaten, mentally ill, or a substance abuser, (and the fact I even have to type those words is preposterous), so she didn’t qualify for most of the emergency shelters we spoke to. Other shelters, shelters with long-term programs to help mothers like Nakia regain self-sufficiency, had long waiting lists and extensive application procedures. Every single emergency shelter we spoke to was full and operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, which meant finding a bed is a game of chance. What if Nakia hiked all the way down there and was turned away? Then what?
I wish this story had a happy ending. I wish I could tell you Nakia and Jahking found a bed, a job, a program that fed and clothed and sheltered them until they got back on their feet. What they “found” is a ticket back home, to family and circumstances she thought she’d escaped years ago.
And what I found is a new cause.