‘All they needed was a few months of assistance’: stories of resilience from a HOPE Atlanta caseworker

When examining homelessness and poverty issues, statistics can feel numbing. In Part III of our interview series with Nigel Dawson, we’re looking at clients’ stories instead.

Veterans like Vincent (a former HOPE Atlanta client) often suffer from chronic illness or injuries that make everyday life more challenging.

As the adage goes, you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. For every person you see who is experiencing homelessness, there’s a story- unique challenges and obstacles, often products of the hand they were dealt or systemic inequities.

But, how many of us have ever stopped to listen? As eye-opening as homelessness and poverty statistics are, our neighbors’ stories often have an even larger impact. And Nigel Dawson, a HOPE Atlanta caseworker, has no shortage of stories to share.

In Parts I and II of this series, we got Nigel’s unique insights on where Atlanta currently stands in the fight to end homelessness and the broad challenges both he and his clients face. Now, we’re sharing the details of their experiences.

You work primarily with military veterans. Can you share some of the more unique challenges or obstacles they face?

Many veterans live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disability that can wreak havoc on people’s lives — even people who appear to have it “all together.” Here’s a perfect example.

Eight months ago, a veteran came to the program who had been injured serving in Iraq. He was blown off a tank, which damaged his brain, eye, and other body parts. When he got out of the hospital, he started his own successful roofing business.

“His PTSD caused him to spiral. It got to the point that he lost everything: his house, his wife, literally everything.”

How is he doing today?

He is now housed and almost has his Veterans Assistance benefits. He’s receiving food stamps and has gained about 20 pounds (which is huge because he was seriously thin). He has also had surgery on his eye and has glasses now.

Things are looking much better, although he’s still struggling with his mental health and is still in that “survival” mindset. He has had a dramatic transformation because we had the resources to help him and also to show him that he deserves better and that he can have better.

What other client stories stand out to you right now?

One of the cases I am working on now is a family of 5 that had been living in a van for six years. They were working the whole time, running a taxi business. Even though they worked, they were never able to save up enough money to get their own place. All they really had was their Crown Victoria, which they used to run their business.

“They had a 5-year-old that had lived her entire life in a car. She had never known a ‘normal’ life.”

And what were this family’s unique challenges?

They lived in Griffin, Georgia, where there were very few properties available to them. They needed a 4-bedroom house, so they already had huge barriers. Having six years with no rental history made it even more difficult.

Where are they today?

We finally got them into a house, and they were so excited to have their first Christmas in their home. I feel very blessed to have been on that journey with them. Although they haven’t entirely “made it,” everything in their life is better because they had that little bit of help. All they needed was the first month’s rent, a deposit, and a few months of assistance, but they couldn’t do that on their own because of all of these barriers.

Want to hear more stories like this or learn more about the complex issues facing Georgia veterans and families? Make sure to sign up for our emails and follow HOPE Atlanta on Facebook and Instagram.

Our vision is to end hunger and homelessness for every Georgian.