Alan Harris, dies at 89, helped Atlanta’s homeless

Alan Harris ministered to the homeless in metro Atlanta for more than 30 years after his retirement from a government job. (JEAN SHIFRIN/staff)
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Alan Harris ministered to the homeless in metro Atlanta for more than 30 years after his retirement from a government job. (JEAN SHIFRIN/staff)

Credit: AJC staff

Alan Moore Harris had a 28-year-long career with the U.S. Social Security Administration, but that was only preparation for his real life calling — using his abilities o navigate bureaucratic mazes on behalf of people in poverty.

Harris, 89, died October 7 at his Atlanta home.

He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, attended Emmaus Bible School in Chicago, served in the Army, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before beginning a career as a claims representative with the Social Security Administration. He rose to the position of executive aide to the regional commissioner in Atlanta.

When he retired in 1988, he began a second faith-driven career that took him out of his office and onto the streets. He told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter in 2001 that he remembered looking out the window of his 19th floor office at the 101 Marietta Street building downtown and thinking something was missing from his life. “I decided to go out and do something to help people,” he said.

His first venture was volunteering at a soup kitchen. “That was the first time I had seen homeless people en masse,” he said. “Working with them became my passion.”

He encountered a young woman named Nancy Zawrotny who was part of a foot-care ministry at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. He invited her to join his effort to provide shelter for unhoused women and children, and before long, he asked her to be his wife. They married in June, 1988.

Alan, Nancy, and her daughter, Rose, from a previous marriage, spent their first year as a family in working with the poor in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Once back in Atlanta, Nancy Harris said, her husband “made a covenant with God that he would live simply, care for the homeless, and not take a penny for it.”

For 33 years they worked by day through various churches. By night, especially in winter, they went out with blankets and hot drinks to find people trying to sleep under bridges and in alcoves. Sometimes, Nancy Harris said, Alan brought people to their house near Piedmont Hospital to have a bath and a hot meal. On Thanksgiving and at Christmas, they included their friends from the streets in family celebrations.

For the last twenty years at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, the Harrises helped countless people lacking documentation such as birth certificates and government identification that would qualify them for assistance programs.

“Because of Alan Harris, thousands of people are receiving the stipends they need,” said the Rev. Connie Lee, the church’s former pastor for community ministries.

Church member and fellow volunteer Bill Earnest said Harris also worked to find shelter, food, medical care and counseling for those in need.

And when a local government would pass acts aimed at the homeless, such as anti-loitering ordinances, he would picket city hall, write letters to city officials, and he organized a group of mental health and social services professionals to advocate for them.

“Alan was the homeless’s greatest protector with his superhuman empathy,” said Kathleen M. Flynn, a Social Security Disability Attorney.

“He was truly a voice for those who were without one,” said Tricia Passuth, director of community ministries at First Presbyterian Church.

Kate Culver, a former seminary intern at the church and now a full-time staff member in community ministries, said Harris was “a mentor, role model and friend. I believe I would not be doing the work I am now without the inspiration and wisdom found in the life and ministry of Alan and Nancy Harris.”

Harris said in 1999 that his faith had once wavered from the strong conviction of his youth. “In my 20s I started drifting and in my own way became agnostic. But when I started working with the homeless, . . . it pulled me back to spirituality. It renewed my faith.”

He became a strong believer and based his life on what he saw as the message of scripture. Helping others, he said, “is the surest path to happiness. Both as a Christian and from a humane standpoint, I can’t imagine seeing people in such need and not help….I focus on those I can help, and try to be an advocate for those I can’t.”

Alan Harris is survived by his wife, Nancy, daughter and son-in-law Rose and Jameel Davis, and grandchildren Aysha and Michael Davis. A memorial service was held at First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, Oct. 19. The family asks that memorial donations be directed to Community Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, 1328 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, 30309.