Erica Thomas, 26, of Austell, organized a group of three friends to leave behind their warm homes this week to brave the streets of Cobb County and Atlanta as if they were homeless.
Tamarre Torchon, 23, of Mableton and Eldrege Washington, 24, of Atlanta traveled between the county and the city with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few blankets for four days last week.
What began as a learning experience changed the way Thomas views her life, she said, and built her appreciation for what she has.
The group left their homes Sunday dressed in plenty of layers and with a few blankets stuffed in bags, and traveled to Atlanta. There, they wandered around looking for food and shelter from the rain.
They were turned away from some Atlanta shelters because they didn’t show up in time and didn’t have any money, so they ended up spending one night in an abandoned home, Thomas said.
“I experienced paranoia, I kept looking over my shoulder. … I couldn’t sleep through the night,” said Torchon.
The junior education major at Georgia State University got involved in the homelessness project because she wanted to learn how people became homeless in the area, especially how foster youth end up living on the streets.
Torchon, who grew up in Austell, was startled when she was kicked out of restaurants and rest stops for asking to use the bathroom and for stopping to rest indoors.
“We felt really horrible,” she said.
She slept in bus stops and on park benches, in abandoned homes and against concrete walls in public parks. For the first time in her life, she didn’t know where her next meal would come from, or when she might get to take a hot shower.
“It was very, very tough. I didn’t feel OK,” Torchon said.
More difficult to be homeless in county
It was much easier to be homeless in Atlanta than in Cobb County because there were more resources and a stronger community of homeless people, Thomas said.
“The homeless in Atlanta, they created a community and they were very humble. They stuck together and they were so grateful for everything,” said Torchon.
Strangers passed out blankets, gloves and food. At night, the three were able to find shelter and basic necessities, Thomas said.
The group stayed in Atlanta, walking around and sleeping in bus stops and abandoned homes Sunday. They ate bits of lasagna and donated turkey sandwiches.
The group took a bus out to Cobb County on Monday, and wandered around south Cobb looking for help, food and shelter.
They were shocked at the apathy Cobb County residents had toward their group.
As they stood at the intersection of Six Flags Drive and Factory Shoals, just north of the Interstate-20 loop, the three held signs that read, “I’m homeless for Christmas.”
Where people in Atlanta had honked or stopped with food, Cobb residents kept driving by.
“People were scared when we tried to talk to them. … Nobody wanted to fool with us at all,” Thomas said.
The group slept in an abandoned house they saw on the street that night, and decided to spend the rest of the experience in the city, where there was a closer community and more resources.
“I was completely invisible in Cobb County. I feel like people looked through me instead of looked at me,” Torchon said. “Nobody really noticed us, nobody did anything.”
She was disappointed the community she grew up in was so quick to dismiss her once she was posing as a homeless person.
Many homeless veterans, youth
As the group stood in parks and on street corners, people came up to them and spoke with them about their own journeys into homelessness.
Torchon was surprised that many of the people on the streets were veterans.
“Wow. Our veterans are homeless. It’s hard to understand,” she said.
Many people blamed the economy for their situations, and recounted stories of losing jobs, then cars, then homes.
On Christmas Eve, Torchan stood with her friends and about a dozen homeless people as they caroled around downtown Atlanta near the King Center on Auburn Avenue Northeast.
“It was the greatest Christmas ever. I felt like a part of a community,” she said.
Upon arriving home Thursday, she immediately took a hot shower, and hugged her family. She said the last four days were a “humbling experience,” and she plans to do it again, with more people.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you to be homeless,” Thomas said.
Thomas runs a nonprofit in Austell that works with local foster youth to keep them in safe homes after they turn 18. Thomas said 65 percent of foster kids become homeless after their 18th birthdays.
A former foster youth herself, Thomas posed as a homeless person this week to raise awareness of local foster children. More information about the homeless project and local foster youth can be found at speakoutlouder.com.
By the numbers:
Reported Numbers of Homeless People:
Fulton County: 1,238
Cobb County: 204
State of Georgia: 5,459
*According to a Spring 2011 study by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a New York City-based nonprofit