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April 22, 2002

Circles of support

By Eric Rangus


Not long after she moved to Atlanta in 1980, Ann Connor became involved in serving the city’s homeless population. She began as any young nurse would—she helped out medically.

A lot of her efforts were in an area not often considered when thinking about the many problems the homeless face: foot care. The subject, however, is quite crucial. After all, someone without a home spends much of their time walking, often in less-than-adequate footwear if they even have shoes at all.

It was only after inviting a homeless man home for supper that Connor noticed the severity of the problems.

“People were on the street in poorly fitting shoes and wet socks. They had dirty feet and they wound up with some serious health issues,” said Connor, a clinical associate professor of community health nursing in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

“So, I started to do some education in the shelters about footcare and I was getting more and more conscious and aware of all the health problems the homeless were dealing with.

Connor decided to take more serious action. She saw that the homeless not only needed a roof over their heads, but in most cases their support networks had completely eroded. They had no one to turn to for anything. Their lives needed to be totally rebuilt.

Connor chose to give the homeless a home.

Her own.

In the winter of 1981, Connor was co-coordinating a homeless shelter at Oakhurst Baptist Church. With spring approaching, the shelter, which was meant to be seasonal, was about to close. That would send the people who had been living there back on the street.

Connor noticed that three of the people—two of them physically disabled, one mentally—would be particularly vulnerable to living again on the street. So she and her husband, A.B. Short, devised a plan.

“We decided to buy a house near the church, renovate it, and invite people to come live with us,” Connor said.
From 1982 to 1994, a steady stream of homeless people trying to catch a break and get back on their feet and volunteer workers involved in social justice in the city lived with Connor and Short, often for months, even years, at a time.

“Most of us have lots of circles of support: family, friends, community, work, social outlets,” Connor said. “By the time you get to be homeless, you tend to have very few circles of support. You might have one or two people you might be able lean on, but its real easy to fall down.”

Connor has spent a good bit of time picking the homeless back up.

In 1988, Short undertook a major effort to create a forward-thinking, support network. They opened Café 458, so named because of its address on Edgewood Ave., in the heart in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic District. Connor assisted in volunteer staff support.

The café is unique in the care it provides. Hardly a traditional soup kitchen, the café was a full-service restaurant right down to the wait staff and a flower on the table that catered to the homeless.

The café’s customers, who are referred by social service agencies, and served hot meals and have access to medical care, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, references to employment services, phone access and even a mailing address.

The shelter has room for about dozen people, and the cozy café seats 30.

“It’s a small, relationship-centered way of being with people,” Connor said.

The café’s program is intense, as well. Most recovery programs range in length from 28 days to as little as three. Café 458’s is a minimum of six months, and the results have been outstanding.

According to a study conducted by Morehouse College psychology Associate Professor Harold Braithwaite, the café’s relapse rate was 10 percent, compared to the national average of 90 percent.

“I was dumbfounded by that,” Connor said. “We were looking at people who were probably least likely to be successful because of their hardcore use and few life skills. Even if the statistics were off, those numbers said the café was doing something right.”

Because of these successes several other restaurants and recovery programs based on the Café 458 model have opened across the country.

Connor isn’t as involved with the homeless to the level she once was. The café now is run by Samaritan House, a local nonprofit group, and she makes only occasional visits—usually with students. She continues to volunteer, though, seeing patients at the Grant Park Health Center.

Connor and Short no longer live in the house near Oakhurst Baptist. With their volunteer work never really allowing them any downtime, they and daughter Egan, now 10, decided to pull back a bit and move outside the perimeter (Connor also has a stepson, Justin Short, who graduated from Emory in 1995).

On campus, Connor teaches one nursing school class and assists in the public health nursing master’s program. In January, Connor traveled to Cuba as part of a program sponsored by Emory’s Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing. While Connor called the 10-day trip an eye-opening experience, it wasn’t the first time she had worked with Cubans.

Her parents had taken in Cuban refugees when she was a child and in the early 1980s, she was involved in efforts to assist the Marielitos, the Cuban refugees—many of them judged as criminals in their home country—who were allowed into the U.S. by President Jimmy Carter. At the time Connor saw them, they were housed in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.

“When I mentioned my family’s involvement with the Cuban refugees and my work with the Marielitos, our Cuban hosts made no reply. The staff just shut down,” Connor said. “I was left unsure about what this meant and what else was not to be discussed.”

Despite the country’s sometimes difficult economic times, Cuba ranks near the top of many health care categories.

Low infant mortality and a high literacy are just two things that set Cuba apart from its Caribbean neighbors, Connor said.

Connor added that statistics can’t always be trusted, but that Cuba fine performance in several aspects of care mean that the country and its methods should be studied. A focus on primary health care, Connor said, is one of the reasons for Cuba’s success.

“They’re doing some good things and we need to be paying attention to that,” she said. “Whether we agree with their political philosophies or not, we can learn some things that would benefit the health and social structure in this country.”