“She was determined, so determined,” Burson said. “I didn’t expect that.”
Last year, Our House served more than 3,200 individuals through its early childhood education program, job training and other service programs, homeless shelter and medical clinic. About 98% were homeless single mothers.
“Since inception, we’ve always wanted to help children from families experiencing homelessness to grow and develop in the best way possible,” said Tyese Lawyer, Our House’s chief executive officer since 2004.
The Our House shelter where Robinson and baby Ayla stayed does not resemble the classic barracks-type shelter with rows of cots in a cavernous room. It is open to homeless families with at least one child, 5 years old or younger. Most of the 18 rooms have a private bath, and each room is large enough for a baby crib, an adult bed, and a bed for each child.
“We are very much committed to providing a space for healing, a place where families can bond, really a space for families going through an incredibly difficult time in their life that says: You really do matter. You deserve good things, and we care about you,” she said.
‘An absolute miracle’
On a cold March day 30-plus years ago, the Rev. Joanna Adams, then pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church, faced an upset congregant. The woman had volunteered the night before at a nearby emergency homeless shelter and was tasked with telling the homeless mothers and children they had to leave by about 6:30 a.m. and couldn’t return before night.
“Where in the world are that mother and baby going?” Adams said, recalling the woman’s words. “They have no place to go. No place to go in all of DeKalb County.”
Adams pulled together volunteers from various congregations and community groups, and they immediately began raising money to provide daycare for the children, which, in turn, could allow their mothers time to look for work.
Within nine months, a ribbon was cut, marking the opening of Our House, she said.
“It was just an absolute miracle,” Adams said.
Our House has grown through the decades as the needs of homeless families have grown. The daycare center for children under 2 is now an accredited early childhood center for children 6 weeks to 5 years. The nonprofit also provides physical and mental healthcare services for people experiencing homelessness, uninsured and underinsured, as well as temporary and long-term housing, family advocacy and social services and job training.
Our House has been able to expand its services, in part, by merging with two other nonprofits: Genesis House, founded by The Temple in response to the need for housing for mothers and newborns being discharged from Grady Hospital without a home address, and Community Advanced Practice Nurses, a nurse-led clinic founded to provide free healthcare to individuals experiencing homelessness.
The nonprofit operates on a budget of about $7 million annually, with support from private foundations, donations, government grants, individuals, corporations, United Way and other workplace giving campaigns, as well as faith-based organizations.
Through the years, Our House has helped more than 15,000 people who were homeless and living on the streets, in their cars, on a friend’s couch, and even in rental storage units.
“We take it one family at a time,” Lawyer said. “Everybody’s reason for being here is different, and, as such, everybody’s path to permanency and stability is different.
Robinson and Sharica Hill are success stories.
Robinson and Ayla, now four, live in a townhouse. Ayla goes to pre-K, and Robinson works as an insurance claims adjustor. She has published one book and has another in the works about her life experiences, including the positive one she’s had with Our House.
“Our House was absolutely God-given, and I say that humbly,” she said. “The staff gave me hope. They were loving. They were very resourceful. It was like God had sent angels.”
Sharica Hill grew up in Atlanta’s Fourth Ward, not far from Our House, the place that provided her with the education she needed to follow her aunt’s path and become an early childhood education teacher. She became homeless in 2017 after missing several weeks of work due to illness and falling behind on her bills. When she gave birth to her son in 2018, Our House connected her with an agency that provided financial assistance. She’s maintained housing ever since and has worked as an educator at Our House for nine years.
“I think the mission is really great, and the work we do is really impactful,” Hill said.
HOW TO HELP
For information on Our House’s fundraisers, go to ourhousega.org