By J.D. Moor
The temperature was forecast to drop below freezing on Dec. 13. At 10:46 p.m., clutching a new blanket wrapped in plastic, Buckhead lawyer Kel Long stepped cautiously on the street toward a shadowy alcove in downtown Atlanta.
“We’re with Project Live Love and Three-Oh-We-Go. Would you like a blanket?” he asked.
From under a disheveled mound of covers, a disembodied voice murmured, “OK.”
It was the voice of a homeless man who is one of an estimated 7,000 homeless people in this area. Indoor shelters only offer about 2,600 beds so, especially in winter, the math – and the elements – are against the homeless.
And whenever the temps dip to 30 degrees or below, Long and his team – go. Ergo – Three-Oh-We-Go! (30WG), which has delivered blankets, hats, scarves, foot warmers and socks to more than 2,200 homeless people in just two years.
30WG stems from Project Live Love (PLL), run by Drew Benton, a former director of SafeHouse Atlanta, which creates programs that are based on local community needs. “30WG is a homeless rescue group. We don’t give them money. We don’t offer food. Our hope is to help these people make it through the night alive and warm,” he said.
“We reach these people after the shelters have shut their doors for the night. We always think about how to show them some love,” Long said.
One night in 2009, Long and Benton found each other by chance while helping the homeless. They decided to join forces and founded 30WG for the next season.
Benton is 33, 6’4”, a stocky, nitty-gritty, street-wise type with many tattoos. Long is 52, 5’7”, a lean, cosmopolitan type and natty dresser.
“Kel brings maturity and sincerity to the mix. He captures one audience, and I another,” Benton said. “Together, we’re a great team with credibility.”
Back when he was in his 20s, Long was impressed with colleagues who invited the homeless to breakfast, and then sat and talked with them during the meal. “I didn’t have the balls to do that,” Long said. “But three years ago on a sub-freezing night, I saw a homeless man stretched out on a bench. His feet in tennis shoes poked out at the end of his blankets and, as a duck hunter, I thought, ‘I’d sure like some foot warmers if that were me.’”
The next day, Long bought out a store’s stock of foot warmers, $500 worth. He learned quickly that activating the warmers before handing them out was the way to be sure the homeless would use them, not sell them.
30WG volunteers are unique first-responders. They know when to go, but not necessarily where, because the landscape of homelessness often changes.
On this first deployment of the season, they spent several hours criss-crossing so-called “hot spots” known to attract the homeless. They zipped around in small, SUV-led convoys to the city’s churches and private parks, tumbled out of their vehicles, then moved in packs on foot.
Long has noticed that some 30WG volunteers can’t get enough of connecting with the homeless, while others can’t handle it at all.
“When they see them actually bedding down on the streets, meet them and talk to them, that experience goes deep,” he said.
Jason Horrell of Buckhead, 30, was one of the volunteers on Dec. 13.
“It’s more than doing something good for these people. It’s about establishing relationships. I remember some of these folks from last year,” he said. Tony, a man in Coca-Cola Park, said he’d been homeless for at least a year, after losing his job as a semi driver. “These are pretty nice people. I needed a better hat to keep my head warm and I’m glad they had one for me,” he said.
That knowledge warms the hearts and souls of everyone with 30WG.
“This can be gut-wrenching work, but we are helping them,” Long said.
To volunteer or donate, visit: http://projectlivelove.com/theaction/three-oh-we-go/