Bigger Vision: Not Just The Name of a Shelter

For Andrew Wilkin, executive director at Bigger Vision Community Shelter, there is no such thing as a homeless person.

These words, this philosophy, is one that carries through all those who come to Bigger Vision.

“I think the most important thing people need to understand is that there is no such thing as a homeless person. There is a person, in homelessness, and those are two radically different things,” he said.

Bigger Vision Community Shelter is on 95 North Avenue in Athens, Georgia. This wall sits directly in front of the door to Andrew Wilkin’s desk, who originally got involved with Bigger Vision when he was a student at the University of Georgia. Wilkin himself started as a volunteer and worked his way up to being the main man in charge. (Photo by Eliza Castriota).

He used homeless as an adjective describing a situation, rather than describing a person. By using it this way, it becomes what Wilkin called an “identity level descriptor,” that goes onto limit the individual from getting out of homelessness.

What is Wilkin doing through Bigger Vision to provide for those in homelessness?

 Why It’s Newsworthy: According to the Athens-Clarke County Department of Housing & Community Development, there were a total of around 239 people living in homelessness in 2017. 

 

Bigger Vision is primarily a winter-emergency shelter, open from the months of October to April, every year in Athens, Ga. The shelter works off of a call-in system, and the first 34 people to call in get a bed. Not only do they get a bed for the night, the guests receive meals, laundry services and hygiene services.

While they used to be strictly volunteer-based, Wilkin has been able to hire a paid staff that help him run the shelter. But that doesn’t mean volunteers have stopped coming in. One man, Mitchell Holland, still dedicates his days to helping out at the shelter.

Holland came to Athens 11 years ago, and said he came to live on the streets. First as a guest, and then as a volunteer, Holland has managed to make Bigger Vision a bigger part of his life.

When asked where he lives now, he crosses his arms across his chest, his sun-weathered, wrinkled face transforming into the face of a young boy, and gives himself a hug. He pats his chest and shoulders repeatedly up and down, and says, “I live right here.”

“I live in the woods, right off Old Hull Road. I don’t stay here; it don’t fit my lifestyle.”

He described his lifestyle as luxurious, content, but most importantly, the best it’s ever been.

The bookshelf sits towards the back wall of the sleeping area in the shelter of Bigger Vision. When Holland returns to the woods for the night, he reads. He stores his books at the shelter, however and says he picked up John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’ recently. (Photo by Eliza Castriota)

Holland spends his days waking up to the sun, walking two miles down to the shelter with his dog, Blueberry, spending time with a former guest of Bigger Vision, and doing whatever jobs need doing at the shelter.

He said he doesn’t worry too much about things the way he used to. Now that there is a paid staff at Bigger Vision, he lets them take care of the small maintenance jobs he used to tend to as a volunteer.
One of the paid staff members Holland is referring to is a man named Jason Shubert.

A seemingly shy man, Shubert was hired by Wilkin just last year to be a part of what he describes as the Home Team.

This area is directly outside of Bigger Vision, beside the small parking lot, and overlooking the railroad tracks Jason Shubert gave his interview here, and politely declined getting his photograph taken. (Photo by Eliza Castriota)

Originally from Jackson County, Shubert moved around a lot in Georgia and even to Louisiana, following his family and his work. The first in his family to graduate high school, he explains how everyone in his family worked at the cotton mills.

“Everyone else quits school and either went into the military, or after they got out of the military, went to the cotton mills.”

Branching out from his family, Shubert took a job in plastics. After being laid off, he went back to his roots, and started working at the cotton mills.

He said, “Everybody knows cotton mills were shutting down, and lo and behold, about a year later, it did.”

The day he and his dad got the call was the same day his mother was having open heart surgery.
Rather than be a burden to his family, Shubert said he walked to Athens to live on the streets. After about two weeks, he heard about Bigger Vision, and was a guest during all of last year’s winter season.

Shubert was hired quickly after the shelter’s closing for the summer months. He shrugs, and tells me he thought, “yeah, I’ll do it. It gives me something to do.”

This is one side of the sleeping area at Bigger Vision. Andrew Wilkin makes it a point to call those who take advantage of the shelter “guests” rather than those in homelessness. He also explained how cell phones are not allowed in this room, because the importance of comfort to all is greater than interruptions throughout the night. (Photo by Eliza Castriota)

What does a job at Bigger Vision look like for him?

“Mitchell… I first met him and started taking over little jobs from him. Lawn maintenance, thing in the building, going to the food bank, and then the jobs Andrew (Wilkin) has us do, which to me, is glorified babysitting.”

“First and foremost for me is a safe and comfortable environment for everyone. Considering I have over thirty years in martial arts, I’m gonna make sure that happens.”

Eliza Castriota is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

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