I’ve pondered and researched for years how our habits drive behavior and how these same habits can form generational practices within the family.  

My nine-year-old son was questioning someone’s actions, judging them for their reaction and was quite confused how anyone could behave in that manner. My explanation to him was if your whole life, you lived in a home where they taught you the sky was green and the grass was blue how would you know any difference?”

“I would tell them.” He replied sweet but firm.

“But how do you know you are correct? Who told you the sky was blue?” I replied.

He grappled with that concept. My son, and most children his age, have never thought about how something seemingly so simple can also be so complex. Thankfully, he’s a deep thinker so when I continued to teach him about how we act and react based on what we’re taught and how we learn, my little, innocent, boy picked right up on it – better than most adults would.  

He jokingly countered: “Who’s right?  Is the sky blue or green?” 

 “I can only tell you what I know bud,” I fired back. 

I serve on the advisory board for the Okefenokee Alliance for the Homeless (OATH), a fantastic organization with a fearless navigator, Niki Spivey, who spends her days working with families to transition them out of  homelessness or precarious housing.  

One of the biggest challenges OATH faces is the amount of time necessary to help these individuals change what might be lifelong or even generational habits. 

The community often expects a 6 week to 6 month miracle turn around for our clients, but that doesn’t always happen. These habits may have been ingrained in them since childhood. The work OATH does is a marathon process – not a sprint.  

Living without a budget, rarely having steady full-time employment, struggling to cope with trauma, seeing “the man” as the enemy, etc. might be foreign and strange to you, but these circumstances are normal, even comforting, to some. What is chaotic for many often feels familiar, normal, safe for OATH clients.

 When a family first comes into the OATH office, we strive to create a new safety net for them. The process of helping them receive wrap-around services and secure housing begins and Niki works with them on a plan for success.  

Recently, Niki shared some statistics about the triumphs and failures she’s experiencing as the homeless navigator:

• OATH has found homes and assisted in set up for 12 clients

• Five clients are currently jailed

• Four clients were successfully relocated with other family members

• Five families have successfully evaded eviction and remain in their homes

• Three clients were relocated to long term treatment facilities

Of the 67 clients OATH has served since August 2019, 53 are inactive, due to being placed in homes, or for other reasons, such as refusing treatment, refusing work or declining OATH services. Another fourteen clients are actively working their goal’s list out with Niki’s assistance. 

Niki reported to the board recently that the number of new clients seem to be on the rise, particularly in the last couple of  weeks. She met with six new clients in one week’s time recently.

Those increasing numbers are most likely due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has presented a new set of challenges driving many to OATH for assistance. Loss of employment and inability to make payments on mortgages and utilities are forcing families to recognize they are on the brink of losing their homes.

I recently asked Ambi Bess, health promotion coordinator for the Southeast Health District, what she thought about our current events.

 “It is a cycle. In my role as the Chronic Disease Prevention/Health Promotion Coordinator for our district, I have learned all basic needs must be met to be healthy.  If someone is homeless, their focus is not on eating healthy; it is not on eating at all. They are not thinking about getting sufficient physical activity; their daily challenge is finding somewhere to lay their head at night so they can make it through the next day.  

Understanding these things is important. During this COVID-19 pandemic, people who suffer from homelessness come from all walks of life, however, the elderly or those who have underlying medical conditions such as chronic diseases could be at an increased risk for contracting the illness.”  

The coronavirus has created new challenges for all of the already struggling communities OATH serves. OATH serves Brantley, Pierce and Ware County. OATH’s mission is to serve these communities and help families transition from homeless or precarious housing to safe and secure housing and to help them break old destructive habits, replacing these with healthy, productive habits. We are not concerned with whether or not our clients see the sky as green or blue we just want to ensure they have shelter from the storms of life.

If you would like to donate to the Okefenokee Alliance for the Homeless please visit oathinsega.org or mail a donation to P.O. Box 2088, Waycross, GA 31502-2088. For more information, call  912-816-4399, or email oathinsega@gmail.com. OATH can also be contacted on Facebook.

• Stephanie Bell is Executive Director of Pierce County Family Connection.