“What do you need?”

This article was originally posted on Atlanta Tech Blogs as part of our series telling the untold stories behind the scenes at Atlanta Mission.

What do you need?” That’s the driving question and mantra for women who enter the Atlanta Mission Women’s Day Shelter on Ethel Street on the Westside of Atlanta. But that didn’t use to be the case. The Atlanta Mission took over and reopened the Women’s Day Shelter in October of 2014. Atlanta Mission closed the shelter for 5 weeks, during which time they cleaned up the building, remodeled the inside, and reopened with a new model of service to these women.

That new model starts with this simple question: “What do you need?” Atlanta Mission discovered that the previous model of services for these women started with a long list of questions, and ended with “here’s what you need.” That wasn’t working, so they changed it. What they found out was that the daily needs of these women were wide ranging, but very straightforward:

  • A MARTA card to get to the doctor
  • Help getting an ID card issued
  • A clean, warm shower
  • A meal during the day

Since changing the model, the Women’s Day Shelter has been able to meet those needs, and expand to meet the needs of more than twice the number of women who previously visited the facility each day.

When I visited the facility last week, I met a dozen or so women, all of whom greeted me, laughed with me, and and treated me like a guest. I was there to attend the art class led by Rachel and Annie, two Atlanta Mission employees. Rachel and Annie weren’t teaching art, per se, but rather just working with the ladies, providing them the tools they needed to create something from what was on their minds or in their hearts.

The ladies created their art while Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder tunes filled the room with an upbeat mood. It’s tough not to smile when “Easy as ABC” is playing in the background. The ladies said they were painting and drawing from their emotions.

The Women’s Day Shelter is not a place for homeless women to stay, live, or otherwise make a home. The facility is designed to be safe and adequate, but not comfortable enough to make anyone want to, or be able to stay there indefinitely. The Women’s Day Shelter is located just three blocks from another Atlanta Mission facility, My Sister’s House.

Getting these women to choose to enter My Sister’s House is the goal. Once enrolled in the Personal Development Program at My Sister’s House, the ladies have a safe place to live and childcare for their children. Unfortunately, some of the women choose to sleep on the covered porch at the Women’s Day Shelter, despite the short walk to My Sister’s House.

When the subject of donors visiting the Women’s Day Shelter and seeing homeless women sleeping on the porch was brought to Atlanta Mission CEO Jim Reese’s attention, they first thought they shouldn’t allow them to sleep there so donors wouldn’t see them. Reese rejected that idea: “Yes, we do want donors to see. That’s the reality we’re trying to change.”

Today, when women come to the Women’s Day Shelter, they are individually assessed — including being asked “what do you need?” — and assigned to an “Ambassador”, which is a big word for “friend”, something most of these women simply do not have. But why “Ambassador”? The word itself sounds out of place, but its definition is appropriate:

Ambassador: a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity.

The friend from Atlanta Mission is there to represent and promote each lady who enters the building, to build a relationship with that lady in order to more personally know her needs, and help her learn to advocate for those needs. After a time of just being a friend, listening to each lady, helping them get exactly what they need, no matter how simple, the Ambassador can then begin to slowly advocate to the lady about how to change her situation. This message now comes from a trusted friend, rather than someone sitting behind a desk looking at an impersonal assessment and then saying “here’s what you need.”

This new and different approach puts the responsibility for naming their needs on the ladies themselves, prepares them to make the decision to make a change, and provides them a friend who can help facilitate that change. Every Thursday afternoon, these ladies create new art by painting or drawing or creating collages, among friends, as they begin the process of creating their own new lives.