OPINION: Kindness of strangers helps fulfill dream of feeding homeless

Torrance Patrick (left) and Alva Jones hand out sandwiches at a homeless encampment in metro Atlanta. (Courtesy of Torrance Patrick)

Torrance Patrick (left) and Alva Jones hand out sandwiches at a homeless encampment in metro Atlanta. (Courtesy of Torrance Patrick)

One day at work, Torrance Patrick, a barber in Peachtree Corners, had an epiphany that would change his life. It all started with a challenge.

Patrick was accustomed to clients asking him questions. But on this day in November 2019, the man in his chair, a first-time client, would not stop with his inquiries.

“What made you become a barber?” the man asked. “What else do you want to do?”

Patrick gracefully offered answers, sharing how he obtained a barber’s license in 2016, how he also was a hair photographer. The man continued pressing and Patrick, 51, continued sharing that he was the divorced father of an adult son, a native of Maryland.

In an effort to wrap up the conversation, he told the man what he really wanted to do was feed the homeless.

It’s not that it wasn’t true, but Patrick had never done anything to make it happen.

Feeding the thousands of unhoused people in metro Atlanta seemed like such a daunting task, how could there be any more conversation after that?

“Can I be real with you?” Patrick said to the man. “I don’t really have the money to feed the homeless.”

“You don’t have to have that much money,” said the client.

“I don’t even know where the homeless are. I live and work out here,” Patrick countered.

“That’s not a good reason,” the man said.

Patrick cashed out the client and the man left the shop. But days later, Patrick kept recounting the conversation. As he drove away from work one evening, something in him shifted. He made a U-turn into the parking lot at the Walmart in Brookhaven.

He walked in and purchased seven loaves of bread, three containers of peanut butter, three containers of jelly and 40 bottles of water. He videotaped himself doing it and went back to his car.

“OK, I did it,” he said to himself, “but now what am I supposed to do?”

He called a friend and asked her to help him make sandwiches that night. When they finished, he had more than 100 sandwiches.

Patrick woke up the next morning at 6 a.m., determined to hand out the sandwiches before going to work. He drove down the interstate in the direction of Grady Hospital, talking to himself and recording the entire way. At Exit 248D, he spotted the tent village. He pulled over, stopped recording and started handing out sandwiches. When the people asked him who he was, he came up with a name on the spot.

“My name is the PJ Man,” he said.

That was Nov. 18, 2019, and Patrick thought he was done. He had accepted and completed a challenge so that when that client returned to his chair, he could tell him it was done. But week after week, something kept pulling him back.

His mother, Jacqueline Patrick, who had aided in similar efforts at her church, was ill at the time but would help him make sandwiches. His son and siblings helped out, too. Patrick posted videos online of his weekly distributions and started showing them to his clients while he cut their hair. His efforts kept growing as clients quietly padded their tips with a little extra cash.

Patrick’s lease was up for renewal just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and he had to pause his services.

Years earlier, he’d had an idea that until that moment had seemed revolutionary — what if he could take his services to people wherever they were? He called up a few clients and offered to come to their homes to cut hair. One client posted his services on a neighborhood app. He quickly booked 20 appointments. He was cutting hair in driveways, garages, swimming pool decks and community centers or wherever people felt comfortable.

The pandemic had a way of making the most impractical thoughts make sense, and suddenly his old vision of a 6-by-10-foot mobile barber shop unit didn’t seem so crazy anymore. Patrick jotted plans for his mobile trailer on his iPad, where it stayed until he connected with Tucker Ouzts of Renown Cargo Trailers in Douglas, who understood his vision. The trailer was finished in December, and using the money he saved from his barber services and generous tips from clients — one gave him a $200 tip on a $60 haircut, for example — Patrick paid for it in cash, in full.

After a two-month hiatus during the early COVID-19 lockdown, Patrick returned to feeding the homeless three Sundays a month. But this time, a client connected him with Laura Jones along with other moms from Wesleyan School, who began coordinating different groups to help Patrick make and deliver sandwiches. Churches, businesses, mom groups, Girl Scout troops all volunteered to help, and Jones would coordinate pickups and drop-offs via text messages.

Patrick sometimes balked at the assistance. PJ Man isn’t a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. He was just a guy trying to do something meaningful, but he quickly realized that most people who were willing to help didn’t much care about his business status. They were just trying to do something meaningful as well.

Since his days of barber training, Patrick had been giving haircuts to men at homeless shelters, so he tends to take his PJ Man ministry to out-of-the-way areas — the encampments where he finds the people who could not or would not go to a shelter.

On any given Sunday, he manages to feed an average of 60 people, he said. Sometimes they share their stories with him — transgender men and women who were kicked out of their homes, moms who lost jobs and custody of their children, men who traded everything to feed substance addictions, veterans with PTSD who haven’t received the proper treatment.

Patrick credits his mom with teaching him to communicate with a range of people. He lost her to cancer during the pandemic, but her early lessons continue to inform his service.

“My mother used to feed the homeless at her church. She would say, ‘Baby, when are you going to come down and help me?’” Patrick said. “It took a stranger to push my buttons.”

And strangers continue to help propel his vision forward. One investor purchased a single-axle utility trailer that will soon have a portable shower on the back.

Next month, when it is fully outfitted, Patrick plans to drive it downtown on Sundays to offer homeless people a one-stop shop for a shower, haircut and a meal.

He wants to take his PJ Man ministry across the country on a full 50-state tour — he has already been to Tampa and D.C. — to feed homeless people everywhere.

And with the kindness of so many strangers, what seems impractical will likely again prove to be possible.

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