Walking In Their Shoes:
When local entrepreneur Junior Elkhatib decided to live on the streets for a week to raise money for homeless veterans, he had no idea what the days would bring. Yet, by walking in their shoes, he learned the real struggles of the homeless population.
The idea of spending a week living on the streets came as a way to increase the amount of money raised in his annual fundraising campaign for the homeless veterans. “We have a United States Military Veterans motorcycle club –Statesboro Blues Chapter. Their mission is every year in January, they do a food drive. They used to do a campout, but its become a one-day food drive for the homeless veterans from Savannah down to South Georgia,” he explained. “[My business] Leather, Love, and Freedom has helped them for quite a few years. We used to do collections for them, but noticed that the trailers were getting more and more empty when Covid hit.”
He continued, “They weren’t quite getting as many collections, and a lot of these homeless veter-
“They’re regular human beings, they all have stories and are just like everyone else. It’s just like they say – we are all one paycheck away from being in their shoes.”
– Junior Elkhatib continued from page
ans depend on these collections, which are done throughout different parts of the country and state. The smaller the donations are, the smaller the food supply is for them, and so is the tents, toothbrushes, blankets, and other items they will need in times like this.”
This decrease of donations evoked conversations about how to go about fundraising, as many people would bring clothes and other items that the homeless veterans would struggle to carry because of their lack of storage. “Homeless people don’t have closets – they have a bookbag. One bag, one change of clothes most of the time – they will just take what they want and leave the rest,” he explained. “Storage became an issue, and now it costs money to store. So now, these donation groups are needing necessities like pop-top food items and monetary donations.”
Three years ago, Elkhatib began a unique way of raising money – by staying up and living in his garage for a few days to raise awareness through Facebook lives and gain donations. The total amounts raised from these events would vary, with some even totaling over $4,000, but Elkhatib wanted to do more. He decided that he would live homeless this year, raising awareness and money just as he had from his garage.
“I tried to forget all year about it,” he commented with a laugh. “I really did not want to do it, but I knew it was important. But now, I’m so glad I did.”
Elkhatib roamed the streets of Vidalia for a total of 5 days, raising over $20,000 for homeless veterans. In that time, he was able to meet many of the homeless population within the city – learning their stories and struggles. “They’re regular human beings,” he emphasized. “They all have stories and are just like everyone else. It’s just like they say – we are all one paycheck away from being in their shoes.”
When he learned that cold weather would be sweeping through the area, Elkhatib became worried for his new companions. He reached out to the Mayor Doug Roper, who shared that the City was working on creating a temporary warming shelter at the Dixon Building at the Ed Smith Complex.
Soon, news of the warming shelter began spreading. United Way of Montgomery, Toombs, and Wheeler Counties Director Patricia Dixon began helping to volunteer at the shelter, and donations poured in of blankets and food. Elkhatib publicly shared needs of the shelter as they arose, and soon, there was abundance for all those in need.
“We’ve had over 20 individuals take advantage of this resource,” Elkhatib explained. “Some would get food and supplies and return to their tents, while others chose to stay the night. Overall, we made sure that everyone had blankets and food to survive the freeze.”
Some of the nightly residents of the shelter included an elderly woman living out of her vehicle and a young man who had walked from Treutlen County to Vidalia in search of resources. Those within the shelter consistently shared their gratitude, and worked to help clean up the area and any other daily tasks that needed completing.
“In life, there is always good and bad. There will always be some people who are out to take advantage of others and destroy things, but these people are not it,” he emphasized. “They are so grateful and I have enjoyed being around them this week. I hate that they are having to go back into that atmosphere, but am hoping to help get resources within the city that they can take advantage of.”
The shelter remained open until 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, January 23, when the building was closed and vacated. Dixon shared that the facility will be available again if the weather creates a need for it.