Traffic passes inches overhead. Just some steel and a thin skin of asphalt separate the homeless guy from certain death. The big I-beams spanning Peachtree Creek shake with the weight of cars and trucks. The creek, a swirl of dirty brown, passes 20 feet below.
The homeless guy doesn’t care. He cut his finger, it hurts, and he just wants to lie down. He’s prone on a slab of concrete shoved against the dirt slope under a stretch of North Druid Hills Road. It’s still morning, the temperature nudging 90, humidity rising. Maybe he’ll just rest all day in his hard bed, in the heat, in the hell of late-summer Georgia, his finger throbbing with every thud of overhead traffic.
Jeremy Turner won’t let that happen. He ascends the slope while two other homeless men and a greasy cat watch. In one hand is a backpack filled with medical supplies; in the other, a chicken biscuit. If the homeless guy won’t come to him, well, he’ll go to the man under the bridge.
“You OK?” Turner asks.
Yeah, the homeless guy mumbles, he’s all right.
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The heck he is. The man’s cut is a nasty slice, crusting with old blood and dirt. Without treatment, he will be on his way to an extended visit to Grady Memorial.
“Let me see your hand.”
In a moment, the cut is clean, treated with disinfectant, bandaged. The man mumbles his thanks. Turner smiles and says OK. He turns carefully and begins his descent. Four Canada geese stand in the creek’s shallow and watch. It must be an unusual sight, even to a bird: a man giving away food and bandages and, yes, hope.
If anything is in short supply in the out-of-way places where the homeless congregate, it’s hope. Without it, life is a sad journey with a dismal end.
Turner — a dad, husband, neighbor, entrepreneur, public servant — is the creator of the grittiest of ministries that offers a bit of that precious commodity. He cares for the least, the lost, people on the margin and barely hanging on. In looking after others, he’s dealing with losses of his own.
Of course, Turner doesn’t say all that. “You stand up,” he says. “You try to do what’s right.”
‘Pick up his legacy’
Jeremy Turner, 44, is founder of Contribute2America, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless people and others with a tenuous grasp on life’s basic needs. It is a Christian ministry; Turner is a Methodist. He has an open face with a big scar between the eyes, a reminder of a childhood accident when a motorcyclist veered out of control and struck the wagon he was sitting in. His eyes are knowing: Turner is a cop.
He’s Atlanta through and through, born at Crawford Long Hospital and a graduate of Norcross High, class of ’89. He attended Mississippi State, but returned to Georgia and got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UGA in 1995.
Just out of Athens, Turner embraced a number of jobs — first aid instructor for the Atlanta chapter of the American Red Cross, salesman, partner in one pizza joint and the sole owner of a second pizza restaurant.
The second pizza joint, in Virginia Highland, led Turner to make acquaintances that would shape the rest of his life.
He immersed himself in work, and when he closed for the night he sometimes joined police pals at a nearby Taco Mac that stayed open late. There, he became familiar with cops — how they thought, what drove them.
He also met Nicol Clark, a nursing student working nights at the restaurant. She was pretty; he was persistent. She cast aside her misgivings — he was divorced, with a toddler daughter — and said yes when he proposed. They wed in 2001.
Turner, with a new wife and a full-time job, decided that wasn’t enough; he longed for something he’d glimpsed in those late nights with cops. In 2002, he joined the DeKalb Police Department. A rookie, he spent 30 weeks at the department’s Lithonia academy, followed by two months patrolling with a senior officer. That, he decided, was what he’d missed in the pizza biz: He was meant to help others.
He eventually sold the restaurant and devoted himself to police work for several years, but quit when he and a few others bought the Oak Grove Market, a long-time business in central DeKalb County that does a brisk lunch trade and sells fine steaks. It was purely an economic move: With a family to support, he needed more money. By then, Turner had three daughters: Hanna, the child from his first marriage, plus Mary Grace and Jamie Lee.
He thought he was done with police work, but Turner was wrong. In 2012, he returned to it, but remains a part-owner at the market.
Police, says Turner, are the first to find the hungry kids, the abused senior citizens, the folks suffering from want. In school he’d been fascinated by the study of abnormal psychology, and few occupations put you face-to-face with the weird, the odd, the downright strange.
And no other job puts you in a place where you can do the most good, fast, than that of a cop.
Isn’t that enough work for one guy? Why create a nonprofit, too?
“My dad,” he says. “I felt like I could pick up his legacy.”
A legacy underscored by gunfire and grief.
‘Not a good year’
Robert Turner, Jeremy’s dad, was active in Christian causes. His nonprofit organization, Mission America, specialized in fixing homes for low-income folks. He did this when he wasn’t working his real job at Georgia Power.
That’s what the elder Turner and a partner were doing one November afternoon in 1998 when a young man with a gun entered a South Atlanta house they were making habitable. Donte Johnson shot Turner in the chest, then turned his weapon on the other man. Turner, still standing, charged Johnson and was shot again — this time in the head.
Johnson ran off with Turner’s wallet — it held about $20 — his watch and Turner’s class ring. It was the ring that brought Johnson to justice. When he tried to pawn it, a shop keeper alerted police. Johnson is serving life in prison.
Now the son can talk about the killing without getting shaken up. That wasn’t always the case.
“There’s a lot of families out there who have been helped by my father,” Jeremy Turner told an AJC reporter 16 years ago. “And he was killed by a 20-year-old punk.”
Robert Turner, who only wanted poor people to have a roof over their heads, is buried near Gainesville. He was 54.
That wasn’t the first tragedy to befall the Turner family that year. In July, his older brother, Jonathan Turner, stopped to help a motorist with a flat tire on Interstate 985. A car struck and killed Jonathan, a Marine and veteran of the Iraqi war. Police arrested and charged the driver with driving under the influence; he’s since been paroled.
The twin disasters, says Turner’s mother, Katherine Mason, “nearly killed our family.”
This is how tragedy works on you. It informs your thoughts, your actions — and, finally, your life. The strain of two disasters in one year was too much; in December that year, Turner’s first wife left him. She also left him with Hanna, barely more than an infant.
“It was not a good year,” says Turner, in what may be the understatement of 2014.
In time, he would find a way to embrace that grief, and turn it toward something positive.
‘Hand in a glove’
He remembers that first bridge. It was a summer morning, the sun glinting in the rills of Peachtree Creek. He and Tad Landau, a DeKalb firefighter, walked down the embankment. A knot of homeless people eyed them warily. Small surprise. The world of the homeless is insular; outsiders are viewed with suspicion and fear.
Turner allayed those misgivings with food, personal hygiene kits and clean clothing. No one was arrested or dumped at the Atlanta city limits, something the authorities are known to do sometimes. Word got around. There’s this cop, and he helps people. In 2008, he created Contribute2America, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Distributing food is a primary focus of the effort, and it is a time-consuming, labor-intensive endeavor.
In the past year, the Atlanta Community Food Bank has given Contribute2America 50,000 pounds of food, much of it distributed through a co-op that operates out of Briarcliff United Methodist. Recipients are required to participate, carrying and boxing the food they take home. Turner calls it “investing” in the procedure.
Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, calls it smart.
“He’s an authentic social entrepreneur,” Bolling says. “In his case, he’s asking people to help out. It’s not just giving away a bag of food.”
Turner also delivers food to a homeless organization in Brunswick, 300 miles south of Atlanta, as well as helps organize meals at a church in West End.
One late-July morning, Turner is driving an old Camry station wagon he borrowed from a neighbor. It nearly groans with the load of food in the rear. He pulls up behind Druid Hills Presbyterian Church. He and others grab the boxes and walk briskly into the basement of an education building. The room, with a polished, cracked concrete floor, is the home of Mercy, a small church with a big goal: ministering to the homeless.
The Rev. Chad Hyatt leads the congregation.
The two met after “somebody put this bug in my ear: ‘There’s this guy, Jeremy,’” Hyatt recalls.
Hyatt was surprised to discover Turner was a police officer.
“In our community, cops are not our favorite people,” he says.
But Turner, says Hyatt, is “like a hand in a glove,” fitting perfectly with his street ministry.
The two talk frequently. During a recent meal for the homeless at St. John’s Lutheran, the men retired to a quiet room where they could confer in private. Each leaned close to the other to hear — mute proof that they are comfortable with the other.
“There are some folks who just do their jobs, and there are others who are compassionate and try to break open the established system,” he says. “Jeremy is one of those in the latter category.”
Two years ago, WXIA-TV recognized Turner for his work, naming him one of 11 Community Service Award winners.
Turner shrugs off the accolades.
“Nobody ever said, ‘I think I’ll be homeless,’” he says.
One day several years ago, Turner got a call from his sister, Stephanie Henderson, who was struggling with grief over the death of her father and older brother.
“I found some of dad’s papers...” she said. They were in a shoe box, given to her by her stepmother, and they revealed a window into the soul of the family patriarch.
Not content just rebuilding homes for the poor, Robert Turner had sketched out plans for a more ambitious homeless outreach program. The key component: food. The blueprint was remarkably similar to what Turner had created with Contribute2America.
“Jeremy had no idea,” she says. “How unique is it that he’s doing the same thing? It was kind of heart-wrenching.”
Henderson believes the two deaths, one coming so quickly after the other, were a catalyst for her brother’s ministry.
“That’s how we deal with our pain,” she says. “We help others. Out of pain comes good, if you let it. And I think, with my brother, that’s what he’s done.”
‘Folks who have nothing’
Roll call doesn’t last long. The cops get briefed and each is on the way to his car by 2:15 p.m. Turner has a fine car, a 2014 Chevy Cavalier so new it hasn’t lost that distinctive smell. A few raindrops roll down the windshield.
He’s patrolling a segment of unincorporated DeKalb that’s roughly defined by several major roadways: Clairmont Road to the Decatur city line; Scott Boulevard to the Atlanta city line; North Druid Hills Road. It’s a wide swath of territory.
The dispatcher’s voice fills the car. A home alarm is sounding on Mayfair Drive, Virginia Highland. The Cavalier turns at a parking lot and reverses course. The rain intensifies; the wipers whap at it.
Mayfair is a pleasant street, hilly and dotted with post-war homes that have grown with successive owners. Turner parks outside the house, a gray traditional. A construction crew ducking the rain pauses to watch.
“I’ve seen burglars running out the back,” he says.
But not this time. Each door is locked, all windows intact. A big limb blown down in the rainstorm likely touched off the alarm. The Cavalier heads east.
The dispatcher again. A wreck, this time at the intersection of North Druid Hills and LaVista. The cars, the dispatcher says, are parked at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. Turner nods. “Probably a rear-ender.”
Bingo. The guy driving a Chevy Blazer didn’t stop in time, piling into the bumper of a Toyota Prius. As he investigates the mishap, the motorists stand in the parking lot looking glum. Turner goes through the tedious process of punching the details of the collision into the car’s on-board laptop. Turner types, big-fingered and resolute. The Blazer guy gets the ticket: following too closely. He dismisses each driver with a smile.
The Cavalier is off again, rolling toward I-85, and Turner recalls the time a man tried to kill him. The guy was driving a Cadillac, firing at Turner’s police car as the vehicles careened across south DeKalb. “The shots hit my car, plink-plink-plink.” The guy’s last shot was to himself: a bullet in the head. Turner still doesn’t know why the guy turned a gun on him.
The radio again. A car fire, the edge of I-85 just south of North Druid Hills. The siren whoops and the Cavalier’s V-8 roars. Cars scatter like mice before a cat.
Two HERO units are already on the site. The sky is lowering, the wind picking up; more rain is coming. Turner parks his car in the interstate’s far-right lane, blocking traffic to give firefighters room to extinguish the blaze. The van, a maroon Dodge, is burning steadily when a DeKalb firetruck arrives.
It’s too late to save the van. It burns for 20 minutes, spouting red and yellow flames, oily smoke rising in the air. The owner had just left the VA hospital, she tells a firefighter, when a motorist pulled up beside her to say a fire was under her hood.
The driver sags with despair. The van wasn’t much, but it was hers. She bursts out crying.
Turner says nothing for a minute. “There go folks who have nothing,” he says. “That van was all they had, and now it’s gone.”
He pauses. “Maybe I should tell them about our food co-op.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
AJC reader Pat Cunningham Devoto emailed Personal Journeys earlier this year, suggesting a story on Jeremy Turner. “He’s truly a hero,” she said. Reporter Mark Davis did a little investigating, and he agreed. In the course of reporting this story, Davis tagged along with Turner on his police beat, delivering food to a homeless ministry and administering first aid to a man living under a bridge. The result is an inspiring story about a man devoted to helping others.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
About the reporter
Mark Davis joined the AJC in 2003 after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes, bums and creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly.
About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States more than 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.
For information about Contribute2America, call 404-636-2060 or go to contribute2america.org