Hip-hop recording artist Lecrae assembles a portable washing station on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in College Park. Lecrae reached out to Love Beyond Walls, a nonprofit led by Terence Lester, to offer assistance, and he donated money for the first 15 washing stations, which are for the use of homeless people in the Atlanta area. AP PHOTO/ RON HARRIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In midst of a pandemic, making sure homeless can wash their hands, too

It’s easy in a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic to forget those who need us the most. The invisible among us become even more invisible. Social distancing adds to the distance.

I think that’s why I’ve always appreciated Terence Lester, founder of the nonprofit Love Beyond Walls, and the work he continues to do on behalf of the homeless, people who live in conditions that put them at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus and becoming more severely ill than, perhaps, any of us.

Health experts have been reminding us for weeks now to practice social distancing, to keep our hands washed, all the while closing parks and restaurants and schools and other businesses.

Where then might the homeless wash?

I hadn’t considered that, but thank God it occurred to Terence Lester that if you’re homeless, something as simple as keeping your hands washed can be a problem.

And so last Thursday, Lester headed out to a popular Atlanta tent city underneath the I-75/I-85 Grady curve and other homeless camps to set up washing stations where people can keep their hands clean. Each station, he said, holds up to 10 gallons of water and will be put in a rotation so that once they are emptied, he and his staff can pick them up, sanitize, refill and replace them.

The idea came to him recently as he listened to news reports about the virus and the growing infection rates.

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“We kept hearing ‘wash your hands, wash your hands,’” Lester remembered the other day. “It made me immediately start thinking about businesses closing down and about the people we are in contact with who won’t have access to running water.”

The dirty hands of a homeless man in Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The father of three began searching online for portable sinks and was delighted to find people on the West Coast putting up portable stations stocked with napkins and hand sanitizers. He kept searching and found a business selling portable sinks.

About that time, Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Lecrae reached out to Lester to find out what Love Beyond Walls might be doing and what needs the nonprofit might be trying to meet.

Lester, of course, had a ready answer. He wanted to purchase washing stations. Lecrae, who was recently recognized at the Georgia State Capitol for his contributions to the Atlanta community, donated money for the first 15.

Grammy Award-winning hip-hop recording artist Lecrae (left) and Love Beyond Walls founder Terence Lester (right) sit on a truck bed filled with portable washing stations on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in College Park. The washing stations were distributed by Lecrae and volunteers with Love Beyond Walls, a nonprofit, throughout the Atlanta area in places with a high density of homeless people. AP PHOTO/ RON HARRIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I’ve been following COVID-19 quite intently since it’s become a pandemic,” the artist said. “While we can heed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to stay away from others who are sick, avoid crowds, and properly wash our hands, I can’t help but think about those living on the street who have no way to bathe or wash their hands. People who may eat, sleep and congregate so close to each other that social distancing is not possible. Partnering with Love Beyond Walls is my way of doing what Jesus did, which is serve humanity.”

Lester hopes to secure more stations.

That looked more and more promising as people responded to Twitter and Instagram posts about his efforts.

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People from as far away as California and Washington, D.C., have sent donations or asked for more information about how they can do the same thing. Lester has put together a manual explaining the process. It can be found on his organization’s website, lovebeyondwalls.org.

Donations can also be made there.

“This is a great moment to start thinking about how to provide for the vulnerable of our community, especially those who are homeless or living on the street,” Lester told me. “It’s also a good time to reflect on our own privileges. The pressure we’re under now is the pressure others feel every day.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This isn’t just talk. For years, Lester has been bringing attention to the plight of the homeless by living on the streets and in shelters and documenting their experiences on social media. Plus he sees every day.

Three times a month, he and his wife, Cecilia, mobilize volunteers to help serve the homeless. They hand out clothing, medical assistance, and showers. They serve sandwiches and hot bowls of soup and connect them to programs that might help them get off the street.

Three days a week at the Love Beyond Walls center in College Park, the homeless can come search for jobs, use computers and access other resources.

Now the Lesters want to do their part to keep them safe from this deadly virus.

“I’m constantly reminded where I come from, and I keep it in the back of my mind,” Lester said. “I know how hard it was for me to stay focused, to learn everything I can, to be vigilant, but I have had people come into my life to encourage me and I want to be that same person to someone else.”

I hope we all will be there for the people who need us and not just in a crisis but always.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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