On June 25, Coke's Public Affairs and Communications summer interns, took a trip to the south side of Atlanta to visit a safe haven: The Gateway Center. The Coca-Cola Company has been a supporter of the Gateway Center since it opened – we helped fund a bus when it opened and have supported it since. The center helps men experiencing homelessness with an array of programs designed to help them get back on their feet.

When we arrived, most of us knew very little to nothing about the center. Fortunately, we were immediately greeted by two of the kindest workers who gave us an introduction to what Gateway does. We were first told to imagine what we interpret as “homelessness.” As we closed our eyes and pictured a person that our subconscious would label “homeless,” we immediately gave that person a name, clothed them in specific garments, and imagined if they had people who missed them. Slowly, all of these details gave this stereotype an identity. We then opened our eyes and the room was somber. We learned that these are people experiencing homelessness, not homeless people, for it is not an identity, but a situation.

Billy then gave us a first-hand account of his experience with homelessness. After a culmination of childhood trauma, isolation, poor education and socioeconomic status, among other factors, he found himself on the streets. After few years of ups and downs, he finally experienced a pivotal moment of empowerment. He took the initiative to do what it took to not be homeless the following year. And he did just that. Now he works at a church and dedicates his time to helping others. His story proved exactly what we had been talking about: homelessness was not Billy’s identity, it was his situation.

Around 4 p.m. we moved to the common area and set up a nail station to help the clients with their nail hygiene. As random as that sounds, having clean nails is essential when interviewing for a job. Employers subconsciously examine you from head to toe, just to see your living condition.

Although we were a bit skeptical of how many men would come to have their “nails done,” the station was a booming success. Almost all of the men who came through stopped by to have their nails cleaned. We were able to talk to them about their jobs, experiences and futures, and really get to know them. At the same time, a visiting youth group arrived and set up a karaoke station in the rec hall. This was another success of the experience as most of the clients that came through signed their names on the list and proceeded to entertain the group with their magnificent voices. Some even stepped up and recited their own poetry.

Suddenly, while we were all sitting around, talking and listening to music, it started to feel like we were a community. It was a very subtle shift, but definitely a presence. And that's what The Gateway Center does -- provide people with a community and a home. It gives people a second chance at improving themselves. Overall, The Gateway Center is an exceptional place that allows stereotypes to break down and create identities for people experiencing homelessness. 

Caitlin Smith is an intern at The Coca-Cola Company.