Barbara Andersen: A bigger vision for Athens’ homeless

by Chari Sutherland

A line forms in front of the building at 415 N. Lumpkin at 6 p.m.   There are 11 men and one woman.  Cold air whips into the tiny entry as they file in, stopping to sign in on a clipboard placed next to a stack of Styrofoam cups and a pot of fresh coffee.  Some of them rub their hands together.  Others allow their shoulders to relax from the hunched-up position they had assumed all day against the cold.

A few go into another small room used for storage and get their assigned tubs containing a mat, two blankets and a pillow.  In the largest of the three rooms, they claim a spot on gray carpeting that has seen better days.  Others immediately get in line in front of one of the two empty tables.  Soon, four young college-aged kids come in carrying cafeteria-style, silver containers.  They set up at the table where the line had formed.

“Smell’s like spaghetti,” one tall, dark man said to no one in particular.

Actually, it was a rare treat: Breakfast for Dinner, including pancakes, sausage, and eggs.

Thus begins a typical night at the Bigger Vision Community Winter Shelter, one of eight shelters in the Athens area.  Barbara Andersen, 78, has coordinated the shelter with her husband, Richard, since 2001. 

Bigger Vision is an emergency homeless shelter open seasonally from October 15 to April 15.  The shelter takes the first 16 people who call at five each evening.  A hot meal is served.  Everyone—including volunteers— is given a mat, two blankets, and pillow.  They all sleep on the floor in one room.  

Bigger Vision started as a ministry of St. James United Methodist Church in 1998 as an overflow shelter, open from November to February.  Andersen was a member of St. James and became a shelter volunteer in 1999.  In 2001, the coordinator at that time left Athens. 

“We ended up taking it over and it has grown since then,” Andersen said. 

A non-profit organization since 2007, Bigger Vision is operated on a volunteer basis.  During last year’s season, 2008 to 2009, there were 350 volunteers.  They recently hired one of the regular volunteers for a part-time, overnight position.  Other than that one employee, the organization is completely run by volunteers and with donations.  Their financial support for the year 2008 was $17,058, much of that grants and donations. 

She pointed to a large yellow refrigerator.  “Someone gave us this.  People in the community donate money and time, she said.  “The shelter has been given a freezer, but we have no place to keep it here.  That’s in our garage right now.  But if we get a more permanent place, it’ll go wherever the shelter is.”   As it is, the space the shelter uses is very limited.  The guests aren’t allowed to bring very much with them on their overnight stays. 

The shelter was housed at St. James until 2004.  Since that time, it has moved nearly every season wherever they could commandeer space.  This is their second year at the Lumpkin Street location.

Andersen’s inspiration to help others began when she was a child, during the Great Depression.  She and her family lived across the street from a church.  Passersby mistook their home for the parsonage.  “So they would stop and knock to see if there was any food available,” she said.  “Fortunately, my father being a school teacher—he may not have made much, but we had some money and my mother would always share whatever we had… an extra potato or whatever.” 

Since her childhood, Andersen went on to work as a nurse with the poor in the ghettos of Philadelphia, with migrant workers in the migrant fields of New Jersey, with prisoners in a penitentiary in Illinois, and established a program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for nursing students to gain practical experience by helping the homeless in shelters. 

Andersen said there are various reasons why people are homeless and they all need a place to get help.  Some of them do hold jobs but don’t make enough to meet their needs.  Some never went to high school, while others have college degrees.  Some of them support families, but can’t fully support themselves.  Some have mental health problems and “are really are in no position to be out in the streets,” she said. 

As coordinator, Andersen described her position at Bigger Vision as “jack of all trades, master of the none”.   In a three-ringed notebook, she keeps all sorts of data, such as the number of people who have donated time, food, or money and how many homeless different “guests” have been served each month.

“I keep track of everybody that’s been here and have since 2004,” she said.  “I can tell you how many have been homeless for a while, or how many are just new to us this year.”  In fact, from October to January Bigger Vision served 1,963 overnight guests.  She predicts the shelter’s 2009-2010 season will surpass the 2007-2008 season which served 2,473 total guests. 

The shelter also has to keep records for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia on how many people have been served.  George McGrady, Agency Relations Coordinator at the food bank, said Bigger Vision surpasses standards. 

Bobby S., who has been utilizing the shelter prior to Andersen’s involvement in 1998, said, “She’s good at keeping things together.”

The shelter used to serve food to anyone, whether they were staying overnight or not, but in December they decided they had to limit meals to overnight guests only.  The demand was too high. 

“A couple of times were knives drawn,” Andersen said.

Andersen is a small, petite woman of only five feet.  When asked if she’s ever felt afraid for her safety, she said no.  “I usually handle the big burly guys and everybody else just stands around and watches, including my husband.”  She said she’s less likely to get hurt because she’s female. 

“I do it just the same way you work with anyone else,” she said, beginning to speak in a lowered, calm, grandmotherly voice.  “You treat them with respect, with kindness, you’re firm.”

She said she always makes sure she’s below them, so they’re looking down on her and that her hands are always visible.  She speaks to them in a relaxed, quiet but firm manner. 

“Let’s put it this way, the fella that’s up to here—” she puts a hand two feet above her own head—“and out like this—” she puts her hands out in semi-circle in front of her to demonstrate girth.  “He’s been put out.  He doesn’t like it but he goes.  There are certain things that are not permitted.” 

“Sometimes people come and they been drinking and she straightens things out,” Bobby said.  “That’s why I call her Big Mama.  She likes it when I call her that.”

Keri Bunting, the shelter’s Volunteer Coordinator, has known Andersen for two years.  She said she’s often seen her deal with unruly guests.  “She has a way of doing it that’s commanding,” she said.  “… a lot of people wouldn’t know how to deal with it or they’d let it escalate.”  She said it’s Andersen’s ability to respect people for who they are that helps in these situations.

“She deals with people very diplomatically,” said John H., a regular guest of the shelter.  “She’s fair.  She treats us equally.” 

Gretchen Bowen, Andersen’s daughter has also observed her mother in action.  When asked if she ever felt concerned about her mother’s safety at the shelter, Bowen said a lot of the shelter guests are very protective of Andersen.  Some of them will intervene if they see a situation getting out of hand because most of them appreciate her and what she’s doing for them. 

John H. said, “When some people need to be ‘excused’, she’s got all our help.” 

Andersen said her goals for the shelter are to have it serve more than 16 people, to be open 365 days a year, and to pair homeless persons with special volunteers she would call “best friends”—someone who will spend time with them, listening and giving suggestions when they are ready. 

“Everyone didn’t become homeless for the same reasons,” she said. “They’re not cookie cutters so everyone can’t approach the problem the same way in the same time.” 

Bunting said Andersen “has a level of commitment past anything I’ve ever seen.  She made this shelter her entire life, her ministry.”  Andersen is her role model and inspiration.  “Seeing how she’s done it is my inspiration for how I can do it.”

Andersen isn’t sure if she’ll ever “retire” from her work at the shelter.  “I haven’t always been so fortunate,” she said, recalling how people helped her when she was struggling as single mom of four children.  “At those times people helped me.  I see this as my time to give back.”