Volunteers: the life, blood of MUST Ministries

Homelessness in Cobb County: a community spotlight

By JESSICA BROWN, JIM DYKSTRA and SIA SUTTON

MARIETTA, Ga.–Every morning, at 10 a.m., an old lady with silver hair and kind blue eyes sits behind a desk anxiously awaiting a dismal and defeated victim of life’s tragic circumstances to walk through the door.  When the door finally opens, the corners of her mouth rise, and the darkness that clouds the room dissipates.  Carol Hunt’s smile has greeted everyone who has crossed the threshold of the Day Services Center at MUST Ministries for the past 33 years.  It is volunteers like her that keep the organization going.

One day, Hunt was holding a box of coloring books and crayons to send to the shelter just three buildings away.  Her back arched through her blue sweater as she shuffled to another volunteer and asked if he could take the box to the shelter.  He happily agreed because no one can say no to “Miss Carol.”

Currently more than 6,000 volunteers serve at MUST Ministries.  Their responsibilities range from painting the foyer of the shelter to evaluating the mental health of the clients.  Samantha Bolling, emergency housing program director, interacts with the volunteers daily and is amazed by their dedication.

“This is something new for me because I’m coming from Michigan, and we didn’t have a strong sense of volunteerism.  It was just staff.  But to come here and see the volunteerism is awesome,” she said.

MUST Ministries is the largest needs-based organization in Cobb County.  It serves more than 100,000 people each year in several ways.

Elizabeth Inn Shelter

Elizabeth Inn Shelter houses the residential program.  It is a six-week program designed to get the residents back to work.  All residents are assigned case managers and are required to meet with them weekly.  The purpose of these meetings is to assess the residents’ goals and create an individualized plan.

“Our program is so fast, and we don’t want anyone to get lost in the program,” Bolling said.

In order to remain in the program, within the first 10 days, the residents must have at least eight hours of employment.  By day 21, they must have 30 hours or more.  Upon completion of the program, they would have had two pay periods and their information sent to the housing specialist to obtain housing.

Every resident who is enrolled in the program begins with the Path System, an accountability system.  The goal of this system is that every resident who enters the shelter has a path to follow.  The Path System is the way the organization determines the residents’ readiness to begin the process of rebuilding their life.  People who are ready to work, but may have fallen on hard times and need a little help, would be categorized as Path I.  Residents who are currently clean but have had substance abuse issues would fall into the Path II category.  Path III residents are currently dealing with substance abuse or may have mental health diagnosis.

During the day, the residents are not allowed to remain in the shelter.  They must look for work or take classes provided by the organization.  Elizabeth Inn is an old church building–formerly Elizabeth United Methodist Church to be exact.  The area where new residents await word of a vacancy used to be the foyer of the church.  The sanctuary that used to house pews now contains 40 beds for 40 men.  Downstairs, where children used to sing in Sunday school, the women and children sleep.  One room has 12 beds for single women, and there are also family suites for 12 mothers and up to 13 children.  Down the hall from the sleeping quarters is a family room where a volunteer hand crafted the bookshelves.  It is stocked with donated VHS tapes, a television and toys.  Just outside the family room there is a playground that was constructed and assembled by a volunteer group.  Whenever the playground requires maintenance, the group gladly returns and performs the work.

In an effort to prepare the residents for life outside the shelter, the program coordinators attempt to teach life skills by assigning chores to the residents such as making their own bed.  These chores are evaluated on a point system to reinforce good habits.

“We’re trying to modify the behavior,” Bolling said. “That [making beds] may have been a life skill they never had been taught.”

Day Services

Shirley, 61, a former RN, was married, had money in the bank and was ready for retirement.  But the death of her husband and a terrible car accident changed her life.  The accident caused her to not only eat through her savings but tp also lose her job, home and retirement.  Living on the streets has not been kind to her.  The few possessions she had were stolen, and the tent she lived in was destroyed.  She uses the Day Services Center at MUST Ministries to get help applying for Supplemental Security Income, but unfortunately it will take another six months before she can receive those funds.

“I don’t wanna be out here for another six months,” she said. “I want out.”

Day Services is available for non-residents on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  These services in the center include a shower twice per week, laundry services once per week, an opportunity to use MUST Ministries’ address to receive mail and help with applying for government benefits.  The participants also are invited to visit MUST Wear once per week.  Here, they can select one new outfit per week.  Day Services functions almost entirely by volunteers.  It is in this area of the organization that Carol Hunt has spent all of her years as a volunteer.

Fishes and Loaves Kitchen

The face of homelessness has changed, according to Knikkolette Church, a digital marketing specialist for MUST Ministries.  Since the recession, she has seen an increase in homelessness with people who have degrees and professional backgrounds.  Jerry, a former service member and truck driver, was caught off guard when he lost his job after the economy took a nosedive.  Fortunately, Jerry saved enough money to provide for his basic needs over the past five years.  He lives in extended stay hotels and has a part-time job.  Every day he goes to MUST Ministries for lunch because it is one less expense he has to worry about.

The Loaves and Fishes Kitchen provides all the meals sponsored by MUST Ministries and is operated solely by volunteers.  Various church groups, corporations and other volunteer groups share the responsibility of providing three meals per day. The residents receive breakfast and dinner during the week.  In the mornings, before they leave the premises, the residents pick up a sack lunch to take with them.  There is lunch served in the Loaves and Fishes Kitchen, but it is only for the Day Services participants.

“They don’t have to be living in homelessness.  Anyone who has a need can come here and have lunch,” Church said.

When people see a homeless person, they often think that person is lazy, uneducated or abuses alcohol.  MUST Ministries understands this but treats individuals with respect and dignity.  Everyone has a story and a past, and MUST Ministries welcomes them all.

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