A man in a battered van piled high with ladders and covered in paint spatter pulls into the parking lot and lets his wife, baby in arms, out at the curb. They chat only briefly; he is headed to work. Work he may not get if he doesn’t secure a good spot on the right corner in time.
In the corner of the lot sits an old sedan, its windows fogged with condensation from the breaths of the mother and two children asleep inside. For a few days passersby think the car arrives early to get a choice spot in line, but the truth is the family lives in the car. They’ve chosen the parking lot as their home because they feel safe at night under the security lights.
A man steps out of the woods, damp with morning dew, his clothes soiled from sleeping directly on the ground. Someone has stolen his sleeping bag – again. He hopes another one has been dropped off for someone like him to make new use of.
These are the common sights as dawn breaks over the Norcross Cooperative Ministry (NCM) on Mitchell Road. Even though the doors don’t open until 10 AM, people begin arriving as early as 6:00 to assure their place in line. Sixty to sixty-five people can be served per day, and word has spread that those coveted places in line are claimed earlier and earlier now as more and more people find themselves in need of charitable assistance.
On this day approximately seventy people stand in line. Only a dozen or so, those who had already been in line for hours, were dry under the canopy over the front door. The others stood solemnly in the rain, pressed against the wall hoping to keep an arm, a shoulder, or a baby, dry. The doors open a half-hour early to bring the soaked people in from the storm.
Within minutes the lobby is full of anxious, even embarrassed, people of every race and nearly every age. Most are single moms, many with small children in tow, but a few men are there too. They are the quiet ones. They are the new profile that has been arriving recently – men who have been unemployed for months and are now asking for help for the first time in their lives.
Last month three hundred new families turned to NCM for help.
Today was going to be a busy day; several volunteers were unable to serve this particular morning. The staff hopes the shortage of hands and feet will not cause them to turn away more than the usual twenty or so late arrivals. It takes as many as twenty volunteers a day to keep things running smoothly; the demand is so great and growing.
Last month over 3,600 people in need walked through the front door.
The first client on this morning takes her seat with a volunteer counselor. She needs food and clothing for her family of four. She also needs diapers, and her eyes turn downward in disappointment when she is told there are none in her child’s size. Diapers, like many other things, are in short supply. Donations of all kinds are down. Hard times have hit everyone.
NCM is spending up to $5,000 a month to restock its food pantry, and still nearly a third of its shelves are empty. Last month NCM distributed over 3,300 bags of groceries, but received donations of only 290 bags to replenish its food inventory.
Another mom sits down and places her infant son in his carrier at her feet. She too needs diapers, and also hopes for a car seat. She too is told neither is available, but she is happy when she hears she’s able to select new clothes for her children from those sorted by gender and size and hanging in a separate room.
A third mom sits down, this one with an eighteen month old chatterbox in pigtails on her knee. It turns out three generations live in the same household and little Brittany is the youngest. Too young to understand that her grandmother’s health is failing and her mom’s back injury is the real reason she stays home all day.
Brittany also doesn’t understand the discussion about how much rent assistance her mom will receive, how NCM will help negotiate the balance due on their past due utility bills, or why the man in the corner is struggling to hold back tears as he shares his story.
It is his first visit to NCM. Self-employed for years, his business dried up during the last twelve months. The money his wife earns is enough to buy food and pay the utility bills, or pay the rent, but not both. His landlord has already told him an eviction notice is in the mail. His voice trembles as he tells of the changes he has required his three children to adapt to. Adapting to homelessness is something he just couldn’t believe he might have to require of them. He wrings his hands together and swallows hard.
Brittany smiles, waves and shouts goodbye to this man as her mom carries her past, and her cherub face evokes a brief grin on his otherwise strained face. Brief. It fades fast when he resumes telling of how difficult it is to find a job right now, especially when you are his age.
Not quite two hours after the doors were opened early about half of those who would be served today have met with a counselor and were now deep in the heart of NCM. They pick through the donated clothing trying to find what would adequately clothe their children and themselves during this change of seasons. They search the used toys and books hoping to find a gift to take home. One woman selects a child’s Bible and clutches it against her chest. Another fills her plastic shopping bag with bread, and a child points in disbelief as a volunteer brings a cart of canned goods to his mom. “Look, food!” he shouts.
The mom quiets her son and then does her best in her broken English to thank the volunteer. She takes the grocery bags loaded mostly with canned and dry goods and exits the building, her son close behind.
The son stands on the sidewalk beside his mom waiting with her for their ride and admiring his new treasure, a donated and worn action figure, but his treasure. His mom looks down at him and then into the sky. It has stopped raining and the sun is trying to break through the clouds.
For the moment the storm has passed. For the moment. But another one will come.