I returned to Atlanta this week for the White House Forum on Responsible Fatherhood. As I traveled the thirteen miles from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to the educational center at nearby Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King began his post-secondary studies at the age of 15, my thoughts returned to an image forever etched in my memory from a trip to Atlanta earlier in the year.
My wife and I had arrived in Atlanta on route to a four-day PAIRS training at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta for chaplains and counselors serving soldiers returning from combat deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. As we searched the downtown area late that evening for an open drug store after a much delayed flight from Fort Lauderdale, we saw a homeless family preparing to go to sleep for the night on a desolate street corner.
The look of hopeless surrender that I saw in the eyes of that mother and what appeared to be her four young children will be forever imprinted in my mind. Both my wife and I have worked extensively with the homeless, yet the image of that family – of a mother and her children stilled in silent despair surrounded by cartons and blankets in the cold darkness of concrete beneath a moonlit sky – desperately trying to watch over all that they had – each other – continues to evoke the strongest feelings of sadness and shame; sadness for whatever they had gone through in their lives that brought them with nothing but each other to the hardened pavement beneath Atlanta’s towering skyline of offices, condominiums and luxury hotels; shame because surrounded by wealth and resources unimaginable to billions of men and women across the globe, somehow these American children and their mother had fallen through every safety net of welfare and social services that represents our collective obligation to care for the most needy of our countrymen and children.
Some years ago, I spent countless hours working with other volunteers reaching out to youngsters living on the streets of South Florida. On Tuesday evenings, we’d walk the downtown streets searching for children who were struggling to survive in abandoned buildings, behind dumpsters and other hideaways in the hope of avoiding detection. We reached dozens of youngsters, some as young as 12, most in their teens, with offers of help and hope. The children we met had arrived in Fort Lauderdale from many parts of the country. Some were desperately trying to avoid being sent back to shelters, foster care or homes where they said they experienced merciless physical and emotional abuse; others had been forcibly expelled from the nearby Covenant House shelter for violating any number of the strict rules required of the runaway youth who seek sustenance and safety within their charitable walls. These children – aged far beyond their years — came from diverse backgrounds – some wealthy and middle class, most from poverty. Some had turned to substance abuse to mask the pain of their sense of isolation, betrayal and abandon. With very few exceptions, every one of these youngsters shared one common experience: they were innocent victims of family breakdown. Many shared stories of fleeing single parents – most often single mothers — who were no longer able to care for them emotionally or financially; others spoke of boyfriends or others who had entered their mother’s lives and brought with them violence and unforgiving abuse from which they could find no safe harbor until they escaped to a new darkness in which they hoped and often prayed they’d find solace.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, five to eight million Americans will experience homelessness over a five year period, including millions of children.
My experiences with these youngsters inspired much of my passion to pursue federal funding for programs to strengthen family relationships, eventually resulting in receiving a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant in 2006 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, to bring relationship skills training and marriage education classes to thousands of South Florida residents.
Last year, those efforts brought our team to Carrfour Supportive Housing in Miami to offer classes to residents of their communities, all of whom had themselves once been homeless. Carrfour is one of the nation’s leading providers of permanent housing and supportive services to the formerly homeless. The nonprofit builds and operates communities in Miami-Dade county that provide housing and an array of supportive services to empower their residents with the skills and resources to live independent, productive lives. Our team delivered training over two months to dozens of residents of Carrfour’s Little River Bend and Royalton communities. Last week, PAIRS team members returned to Little River Bend to check-in with our graduates and provide follow-up services.
It’s impossible to spend time with the residents of Carrfour without being inspired by their generosity, faith, and spirit. Gathered together within the warmth of Little River Bend’s training room, we heard story after story of residents and staff looking after each other and others in the community who were less fortunate. Woven within their individual narratives of lives in which they’d once found themselves homeless, often addicted and frequently in trouble with the law, were stories of helping others – neighbors, relatives, and strangers alike, along with profound wisdom birthed from the pain and desperation from which they’d emerged, from which they’d survived.
Recently, Carrfour completed construction of their newest community, Villa Aurora, in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, and opened the doors to nearly 100 families who were able to leave shelters and transitional housing to begin new chapters of their lives.
At this time in which so many families are gathered together in celebration of the many blessings in our lives, I hope each of us will think of those within our midst who are less fortunate – many of whom are alone, struggling, frightened – and reach out to offer tangible support. Whether a meal, volunteer hours, financial contributions, or time to listen with empathy and love, there is no time of the year in which it is more important to recall the commandment that lives within each of our souls – that we are our brothers’ keepers.
One opportunity to help those who are most vulnerable is to contribute to the success of Carrfour by purchasing and dedicating a brick with an enduring message remembering or honoring a loved one. The bricks will pave the entrance to their Villa Aurora community, one of the most significant symbols in our nation of what’s possible when we come together on behalf of those who are most vulnerable. Donations can be safely made online from this link.
I hope and pray this time of celebration and thanksgiving brings families across our nation closer to one another; that it’s a time in which petty differences and disputes are surrendered on behalf of what matters most; that collectively, each of us and all of us, reach out to those who are most loved and cherished in our lives, and, together, to those within our neighborhoods and communities who are most in need.