A pair of unique activities launched this year at the Atlanta Dream Center is changing perceptions about homelessness and encouraging positive interaction with police in the community.
In the spring, the Dream Center held its first “Midnight Walk,” an event in which participants “lived homeless” for one night to raise awareness of the more than 6,600 homeless people in the city.
Also earlier this year, the Dream Center’s Metro Kidz, a preventative program for at-risk youth, began holding monthly activities with members of the Atlanta Police Department to encourage positive relationships with law enforcement personnel.
Founded in 2003, the Atlanta Dream Center serves as a bridge for homeless men and women, at-risk kids, and sex trafficking victims, connecting them with long-term care they need in a Christ-centered environment.
Nick McLean, homeless outreach coordinator at the Dream Center, says the heart of the March midnight walk was to challenge stereotypes that all homeless men and women are drug addicts, or people with mental health problems.
“The whole night was about relating,” McLean says. “We wanted to be able to walk a mile in the shoes of the homeless so that we could better understand the brokenness that has become their reality every single day.”
The evening began on the streets with the Dream Center’s homeless ministry, iAM, where 75 Chi Alpha Campus Ministries students supplied meals, clothing, and resource information to the homeless. The group then returned to the Dream Center for a worship service.
Then, with only $2 in cash and belongings in a backpack, group members walked 4½ miles around Atlanta and prayed over strategic locations, including a local jail, a homeless assistance program, and a bridge overlooking the Atlanta skyline.
Paul V. Palmer, senior pastor of Atlanta Dream Center Church and the Dream Center’s founder, says during the walk, the group had a miraculous encounter outside a bar.
“They said, ‘Lord, send us a backslider out of there,’ ” recalls Palmer, an Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Missionary Church Planters and Developers pastor. “Then, this guy opened the door, gave a cigarette to the guy outside, looked at us, came across the street, and his first words were, ‘I’m backslidden. Would you pray for me?’ It was crazy.”
Following the walk, the group met in an empty parking lot, where the volunteers spent the night lying on cardboard under the stars. The next morning, participants received a breakfast from the Dream Center’s homeless ministry. Then, they debriefed.
“There were so many positive testimonies about the experience, on how it just changed and shattered the way they viewed homelessness,” McLean says.
The first walk raised more than $5,000 for the Dream Center’s iAM ministry. The Dream Center will hold another Midnight Walk Oct. 7, open to anyone 16 and older. Dream Center leaders are hoping for a total of 366 participants, one to represent each night of 2016.
The Dream Center’s relationship with the Atlanta Police Department also gelled in the spring, after members of the APD’s Path Force attended one of the center’s after-school program events to help children with homework.
The Path Force is a unit that patrols the Atlanta BeltLine, a system of trails and parks located along a revitalized railway corridor that runs through the Dream Center’s neighborhood.
Elena Markham, Metro Kidz director of discipleship, says one of the goals of the partnership is to provide strong role models and to promote positive interaction between police and children.
“We had noticed that a lot of our kids were terrified of the police,” she said. “We thought this would be good to show them police officers are good, and they can help us.”
Markham says when the children first met the officers at the after-school program, several expressed fear, and one even hid under a table. But she says attitudes changed as students warmed up to the police.
“They know the names of the officers now, and they get excited about them coming to visit,” Markham says.
Activities have included a free shoe distribution, bike giveaways, and large kickball match. The Path Force also will be a part of the Dream Center’s Trunk or Treat and Christmas You Giveaway events.