Inspiration

Wind River Interview – Nolan English with Traveling Grace Ministries

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Wind River

March 17, 2024

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Tiny houses and homelessness are frequently discussed together. There are several case studies of beautiful and successful tiny home communities that have been built to house those experiencing homelessness, but these homes are usually not a first-response housing solution. This is because in order to deliver impactful aid, time is of the essence. Nolan English speaks with us about his nonprofit organization, Traveling Grace Ministries, and the importance of both emergency housing and wrap-around, supportive services. He also delves into key issues facing Atlanta, where Traveling Grace operates, and how homelessness is treated as an industry. This is a deeper dive into a topic that often doesn’t get a close and honest look, so we hope you’ll find a new perspective from Mr. English’s first-hand experiences.

Q:

Mr. English, thank you so much for speaking with us. One of our ongoing goals is to highlight housing initiatives across the country that help the underserved, and in this case we’re talking about the homelessness crisis in Atlanta, Georgia. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your non-profit?

A:

I’m a native of Louisville, Kentucky and I came to Atlanta around 2000. I was previously stationed at Fort Benning with the US Army and after that I came to Atlanta, really for the sole purpose of helping with the homeless situation. I had experienced homelessness once early on in my military career and twice more with a wife and kids. Traveling Grace Ministries was basically born out of lived experience. I was able to navigate my way out of homelessness, and I felt it my calling to go back in and help other people navigate their way out of that personal wilderness. Each case is different, but ultimately, they need someone to get down in the fire with them. We’re boots on the ground. We’re people that go under the bridges, into tents, wherever the people may be. We go in and try to help create a path back to self-sufficiency.

Personally, I have 5 degrees, and only 1 is an undergraduate degree. But nothing about my education or the money I was making at the time put me on a trajectory that exempted me from the possibility of homelessness. Nothing does. We just receive a lot of grace that we really don’t acknowledge.

Q:

Lack of awareness and understanding can get in the way of finding compassion for those in a crisis situation. How would you personally define homelessness? Are there misconceptions around homelessness that you hear frequently?

A:

My definition often tailors to what it is not. It is not an affordable housing issue. It’s not a lack of education. A lot of times, it’s just a situation that someone cannot get out of on their own. It’s kind of like someone being diagnosed with cancer. There’s a threshold in which we have control—what we eat, what we do, things like that—and some things are just out of our control. Once you cross that threshold, it can’t be remedied without getting that special triage type of help. That includes wrap-around services, life skills, coping skills, and psychological help.

One major misconception is that a lot of people think someone ends up homeless based on life choices. We find very little of that. In fact, it’s not enough to even register. More often than not, they have experienced self-sufficiency before. They’ve had a house or apartment on their own.

Some people have had that perfect storm where a child and parent have died in the same month. I’ve seen too much of that. There are instances like myself where there is a financial collapse out of the clear blue. A lot of our people are out on the streets because of an illness that caused them to lose their job. When we really start to get into peoples’ stories, we find out that we’re not so different. We’ve just dodged a lot of bullets without knowing.

Q:

To talk more about the importance of being reactive to someone in crisis, can you tell us what the average life expectancy is for a man or woman once they become homeless?

A:

According to statistics, for a male it’s age 58 or 59, for a female, it’s 47. If people end up out there before then, their life expectancy is roughly 10 years for a male, 7 years for a female. So when you hear someone say they’ve been homeless for many years, they’re living on borrowed time. We have to look at each situation for the emergency that it is. If a disaster was to come in and wipe out the city of Atlanta, the Red Cross would send aid immediately. But we don’t look at personal disasters the same way. These people have lost everything. Too often we’re quick to pray and slow to move.

After about 72 hours on the streets, peoples’ mental capacity starts to depreciate. They’re sleeping with one eye open. While we’re fearful of home invasions behind brick walls and locked doors, these people are having guns pointed at their heads regularly, some killed, people taking whatever they have. Atlanta has been featured on “First 48” for gang members going around killing homeless folks. There’s other stuff going on that never gets reported. I found two people dead in their tents this weekend. One was murdered and one likely passed from the cold weather. So we have to move quickly for the emergency that it is.

Q:

What impact does it have on someone to have shelter in the most primitive sense? Four walls and a roof?

A:

I think we understand it very well as a comparison to a personally owned vehicle. A garage-kept car lasts a lot longer than a car that’s not. The elements take a toll by themselves. Quality food and access to showering and clean clothing are all things that come along with having a house or a shelter. Just getting someone in and locking a door behind them is going to do wonders for that triage.

Q:

Talk about the kinds of emergency shelters that Traveling Grace Ministries procures—where they come from, how quickly they arrive, and where they are placed.

A:

The kind of housing we procure is quick and readily available.

We’re getting down to the most primitive and basic needs of a human being. They have to have shelter and all of the things that go along with it. There’s no shortage of food in Atlanta. The shortage is housing. No one is starving to death on the streets of Atlanta. Trust me, I know. We misdiagnose the problem, therefore we misdiagnose the solution.

Virtually no one is looking at tiny houses to place people in. We’re looking at temporary hotel situations, or something else very short-term as we start a long-term process. We can’t have them waiting for the other shoe to drop. We have to get them something quick, fast, and hurried. I’ve proposed stick-built tiny houses and shipping containers.

Q:

How do you get approval for this kind of project? Who has the most influence when it comes to allowing placement of containers or permitting any other type of simple structure?

A:

We can turn around a shipping container in about 2 days. The permissions come from the state legislature and it cooks down to the City, causing a bottleneck. With tiny houses, anything under 400 square feet has to have a slab, so tiny homes on wheels are not a solution for us. We also have to get past the NIMBY issue (a term frequently used to describe people who object to housing developments in their neighborhood) among members of the Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Units (“NPU’s”). We need people to navigate the legislation so we can do more across the board and react quickly. The city is sitting on roughly 800 acres of city-owned land that can be easily turned over to us to move forward.

In the meantime, we’re piece-mealing it together with other like-minded individuals. Finding those individuals is a much slower process than having the right permissions across the board to be able to churn out tiny houses to put on city-owned land.

Q:

We get in our own way.  It doesn’t have to be as complicated as it is.

A:

You’re right. It perpetuates homelessness. That’s the piece that really bothers me. I’ve been in too many closed-door meetings where I know it’s more about self-preservation than it is about eradicating homelessness. You have organizations that have built their companies on the backs of the homeless. Homelessness is an unnecessary evil, especially in the city of Atlanta. We are operating as if we are a third-world country when it comes to this issue, yet there’s prosperity all around us. I’ve seen too many dollars redirected toward things that don’t even put a bandaid on what’s happening. But at Traveling Grace, we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job. There are other things to do, and this should not be one of them.

Q:

What does it mean to address housing for homelessness without addressing the human aspect? How critical are supportive services alongside finding shelter?

A:

They go hand in hand. You can’t do one without the other. You can address housing all day, but if you don’t attach wrap-around services to that, you’ve done them a disservice. You’re going to find a lot of folks dead in that housing that you gave them if you just leave them to themselves, for multiple reasons.

On the physical side, when someone is in homelessness, their body has an intense fight mechanism going on—once you pull them out, they can basically relax themselves to death. After the third time I encountered this, I asked the medical examiner about it. You have to keep folks busy as you bring them out of homelessness.

For the psychological piece, we have to understand that people living in homelessness have built their own communities, to the point where they’ll even have a governor or a mayor of their encampment. As you bring them out, it’s crucial to reattach them to community. Otherwise, you will see a lot of suicide, overdosing, and the whole nine. These things have to be remedied through wrap-around services.

Q:

When we’re speaking about people that are feeling so hopeless, if you’re offering aid, it can’t be a false hope because it just does more damage.

A:

It does. They’ve been through so much trauma that you have to underpromise and overdeliver. You have to be with them through the long haul, and usually that’s a 5–7 year process.

Q:

Let’s talk more about homelessness as an industry. How much does the government spend on services like police and EMS directly related to homelessness? How do these numbers compare to money spent on providing shelters and supportive services? What kind of impact could that kind of money have to eradicate homelessness?

A:

The city of Atlanta spends roughly $60,000 per person per year in homelessness. That includes police, EMS, hospital services, the whole nine. If we could spend just a fourth of that on site-built tiny houses and shipping containers, we could eliminate a lot of that. We can build a basic tiny home for around $10,000 and put $5,000 toward wrap-around services and make a huge impact. It is simply not fiscally responsible to carry on like we have been.

Another issue we have is that people are burning literal bridges in Atlanta left and right just trying to stay warm. In 2017, a fire set by a homeless individual under the I-85 bridge caused it to collapse. The amount Atlanta spent to repair the I-85 collapse could have eliminated homelessness by itself. The bonus to finish that up on time was well over $10 million, not to mention the cost of materials for the bridge itself.

We waste a lot of resources. Anybody can come along at any given time and end this thing with the right resources, but they haven’t. In Atlanta, based on the city’s inventory of dilapidated or abandoned houses, we’re sitting on roughly 19 empty houses for every homeless person. These are existing houses that can be revamped.

Q:

Tell us about what a success story looks like. What is the roadmap for someone’s journey back to permanent housing through the help of Traveling Grace Ministries?

A:

The one I constantly point to is a young lady that was living out at the Woodruff Park train station with her two aunts. They had moved down from Detroit and had a housing situation fall through which was out of their control. She lost all four of her kids to DFCS. When we found her, she had been out on the streets for at least 2 years. We took the time to build rapport with her and get down to what really happened. We were able to get them housing, first and foremost. We also had to get her rehabbed, since she had lost a child and turned to drugs to numb the pain. We went to court and helped her fight to get her kids back. We came up with a family care plan to totally turn the situation around. She received all of her four beautiful boys back. We helped her get her license and all of her credentials back. We helped her get a job, and she has been maintaining ever since, on her own, without our help. I saw her walking to the grocery store just the other day and blew the horn at her. To see her going so strong is exactly what we’re needing. There are so many success stories, but that’s the one that stands out, because to me she was the most hopeless out of everyone that I had seen.

We also have people that we’ve helped return to self-sufficiency that turn around and help us pull more people out. Maybe they were a trouble maker for us, but now they come beside us and go back in that wilderness. They’re able to speak to folks and be our biggest advocates. Lights come on and ears perk up when you say, “Hey, been there done that,” especially when you look like you haven’t been through a thing. I’m living proof and I’m standing here telling you that you can make it. There’s always going to be someone in these meetings, in the mayor’s office, that’s fighting on your behalf, whether you know my name or not. At the end of the day, God has not given up on you, so let’s go.

Q:

How big is your team?

A:

We’re running about 12–15 folks. A lot of times we’re going out in small groups. I often take three people with me: Pastor Jill Swartz, Joshua Lablanc, and Carol Owmby. Pastor Jill established and runs a division of Traveling Grace called Crosswalk ATL. She specializes in domestic violence- one of the leading causes of homelessness for women. Lablanc established the ATL Guardian program which is the night mobile case management arm of TGM. Nighttime is the best time to build rapport… it shows those that you are serving that you are serious. No one goes out at night unless they truly care. He’s currently in Seattle observing the particular ills of their homeless population. Carol just turned 75 years old but she’s a rockstar in the streets. She’s a “hugger”, tough as nails, doesn’t back down, and she loves the mess out of them. Our entire crew is like that— all are hand selected warriors for this battle. I’d take them to war with me any day!

Q:

What’s the first conversation like when you approach someone?

A:

First thing is always giving them my name and asking theirs. Because the most important thing to them, the only thing they really own and possess is their name. As long as you can remember their name, you’ve got them. Everything beyond that piece of the conversation is framed as though we are coming to visit them at their home. We ask them about themselves, and sometimes we take them out to get something to eat, sit down and talk. As you start to build rapport with folks, you really start to hear how they got where they are. We like to build rapport quickly because every day is not promised, and we deal with a lot of death.

Q:

How can individual citizens make the most impact helping the homelessness crisis?

A:

Get involved with trauma-informed organizations, like Traveling Grace Ministries, that are going to go in and help to keep down the mismanagement of services. A lot of people are throwing resources toward things that don’t apply. Maybe you have a church that only focuses on food. Well, that’s not our issue in Atlanta. Let’s redirect that toward housing so we’re not mismanaging resources.

Don’t go out on your own, because you could be putting yourself in harm’s way. There are a lot of guns out on the streets now amongst the homeless. If you’re interested in volunteering, you have to understand that this is a calling, otherwise you’re not qualified to be in it- you will do more harm than good. You have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. And you have to carry the burden well.

Also, citizens can get involved by pushing civic leadership. Push them to make the right moves for every citizen—those that are seen and those that are unseen. Make phone calls, go to meetings, and tell them what’s expected of them, because at the end of the day, they answer to the people of that city. People have to get involved to make sure that the people that have the power to move and shake things are moving and shaking.

Q:

How can people support your work?

A:

Of course, people can donate at www.travelinggraceministries.org or reach out if they’re interested in volunteering. We’re really gearing up for next year. We’ve been very cordial this past year with the city. The honeymoon for everybody’s over. We’re going to be making a lot of noise and doing a lot of things. And anyone that wants to come alongside us is welcome.

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