Six months ago, Kendall Weinberg made a bold career decision—leaving her full-time job; today it was a risk worth taking when she relocated from Lawrenceville, Ga., to Athens last August.
The past 12 years, Weinberg served as director at MARR Inc., a private nonprofit treatment center catered to women recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. One of her biggest adjustments was the transition from an all-women staff of 15 to a team of three at Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens.
“One of the biggest motivators for me leaving that job was to find something here to be working with people that are a part of my personal community,” said Weinberg. “I actually quit that job not knowing what I was going to do next which was a bit risky but I figured whatever was supposed to come up next would come up.”
The foundation of a shelter
IHNA is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to accommodate homeless families with access to emergency shelter, food, transportation, child and health care, job search, and any other life stability resources. The shelter partners with local area churches, also known as support or host congregations to keep families together during their stay in the program.
A look inside the shelter, you will not see a room the size of a gym filled with 100 beds nor a cafeteria style kitchen. From the corner of North Newton Street and West Hancock Avenue, IHNA is built like a modern-day style home with a white picket fence and a children’s playground in the backyard.
The IHNA staff believes in bonding with their guests and not counting the time left a person has until their spot is to be replaced by someone else disadvantaged.
“Some of the other shelters a family or a person has to leave by 7 or 8 a.m. and they can’t come back until 5,” said Weinberg. “Whereas as for us, they’re here and we get that chance [to know our guest] from full topic conversations or more hands on with folks. Even if it’s just, I can’t figure out how to attach my resume to this job application can you come help me?”
IHNA is distinguished among typical shelters that scavenger hunt for homeless persons to only offer them room and board for one night.
“We just don’t go around and grab people at 6 o’clock at night so you can come spend the night and give you a donut in the morning. We constantly have professional people helping them,” said long-time volunteer, Wanda Culpepper. “They’ve got their own little counselor, career trainer and everything.”
Something as simple as getting a haircut may be taken for granted, but is on a wish list for someone less fortunate.
“For someone who hasn’t had that kind of opportunity to do that, particularly [for] a female, a mom to do something to take care of themselves. That can very quickly turn from is it possible for me to get $40 to get a haircut sometimes. If the answer to that question is yes, we’ll help you do that, you can just kind of see a transformation from that individual,” said Weinberg.
Beating the system
There is nothing the IHNA staff and volunteers will not do to help families work towards a better life when they seek the shelter for help. They take on the hard and complicated tasks to better suit their families if the results make their lives easier.
Weinberg described the obstacles they face on the road to stability as “systems” that prevent their guests from fully being able to support themselves without working undesirable jobs.
The $7.25 federal minimum wage is a system that does not allow for parents to raise their 2-year-old child without the constant worry of financial stability.
Georgia’s decision to not expand Medicaid coverage to low-income leaves their guests with little to no quality healthcare.
The public bus transportation, Athens Transit, is a system where rates steadily increase, even though minimum wage remains stagnant.
Low-income families who have no choice but to accept 12 hours work days with minimum wage is a system that keeps parents from spending adequate time with their children or finding a daycare whose hours work with their job.
“We have folks here with us right now that might get a great job opportunity and we ask them where is it and it’s not on a bus line; it’s two miles past where the last bus stops. Then that’s an opportunity we know they can’t really take advantage of because we know they can’t get there,” said Weinberg.
Each family that comes to IHNA is unique in their own way, but the thread between them is the same: they need help and place to start.
Coordinator of host congregation, Athens First United Methodist Church, Allison Floyd, described the demographic of families that rotate through her church as unique.
“The spectrum of ages no two families that I’ve seen are really the same,” said Floyd.
Their genetic makeup does not matter. Their background story does not matter. What matters is IHNA’s ability to offer a safe environment with the outlook of hope for a better future.
“Homeless is just about as far as you can fall and when all the families come they don’t have a safe place to stay,” said Floyd. “They’re not on a spectrum because they’re all on one end of the spectrum.”
A family that is a common guest to IHNA is single mothers.
In her short time on staff at IHNA, Weinberg sees the other side of the fairy tale when a romantic relationship leaves a mother needing a way out.
“Do we stay with the financial security or do we try and make a healthy decision that is going to be happier and healthier for all us, that maybe will be a lot more risk?” said Weinberg.
Homeless persons and those who are more fortunate, when they come together, opens the opportunity for them to learn they have more in common then what sets them apart.
“We’re all in this together”
Before Culpepper started to volunteer at IHNA, she taught first grade for 30 years and learned from her classroom she could not save every child that needed help.
“When the kids were with me and it’s happy and it was great and I loved them, said Culpepper. “I knew they didn’t go home to good situations every night but I couldn’t fix that so I sort of learned to kind of separate a little bit from that, and I think it’s the same thing here.”
Yearly, IHNA works with nearly 900 volunteers from the congregations to events. That is close to 900 reasons how IHNA is banding the community together to help change lives.
“There’s no greater feeling of satisfaction. I think joy in your life is when you do something for other people it’s just the way we’re wired,” said Culpepper.
Oconee Street United Methodist volunteer, Katie Calkin, makes service work a family affair with her husband and two daughters, 6 and 10.
“We just want to build that service be a part of their life, not something they have to think about,” said Calkin of her daughters.
Although learning to not bring the emotional burden of working with homeless people into your personal life is a learned process; there are highlights in the Calkin household.
“There have been specific kids we have fallen in love with and it’s hard to think we’ll never see them again, but we keep wishing them well in our prayers,” said Calkin.
In her short tenure with IHNA, guests impacted Weinberg in ways that has changed her as a person and reflects why she works in her field.
There came a time when a single mother of two who left an unhealthy relationship, told Weinberg IHNA was a place where she felt empowered and never a burden.
“She said, ‘y’all finally gave me the space to let down my guard and figure some things out and realize the confidence I do have in myself and believe in myself again.’ I was very proud of our program in that moment,” said Weinberg.