The moment Love Beyond Walls’ founder decided to become an advocate for the homeless

Founder Terence Lester describes his calling and creating washing stations for Atlanta’s homeless

Terence Lester Love Beyond Walls

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Terence Lester, founder of Love Beyond Walls, as told to Thomas Wheatley.

Family always was found in the company of those who would accept me, wherever I was in life. When I was 16 years old, I had family issues that led to me leaving home and staying on the streets of Atlanta, bouncing around from friend’s house to friend’s house, just trying to find rest and peace. Artie and Emilia Shaw, the parents of a friend of mine, were big advocates in my life and let me stay with them. Every morning, Artie encouraged me as I went to high school. He spoke life into me. He invested in me.

I learned from that time that my social condition and the experiences I was having paled in comparison to the potential that I had inside me. I just needed someone to help me realize that potential. Granted, in high school, I made some bad mistakes, but I had a lot of teachers that missed who I was as an individual and my experiences. Some days, I would fall asleep in class, and they had no idea I was up all night studying or trying to find a safe space.

In about 2004, my wife and I were about to graduate college. We were eating ramen noodles and thinking about how we didn’t have enough gas in the car to go drive somewhere we wanted to. Then, we asked ourselves, who are we to start complaining? There are a lot of people who probably are worse off than we are right now. Living in Atlanta, what does it mean to be proximate to people who are homeless, oftentimes nameless, living on the margins of society?

We filled trash bags with household items. We included an old pair of Reeboks my wife didn’t want. We pulled up in downtown, and a lady who was barefoot ran up to me and said, “I need shoes. I was just praying for some shoes last night.” My wife found those Reeboks. They were the homeless woman’s exact size. We had goosebumps and chills. It convinced us that we must live our lives for something greater, something bigger than ourselves, in a way that affirms the dignity of people living on the streets. In that moment, my wife and I just kind of vowed to always be present among those whom other people forget about or deem invisible. I could have still been on the streets.

Next thing we knew, it was a full-time thing. I knew the internet was becoming the place where you could raise awareness and educate and mobilize people. I started studying technology companies, like Instagram, and how they use design and innovation to create practical solutions. Because of my teenage experiences, there were times early on where I had no choice but to try to figure it out, MacGyver things. When I got to a place where I could leverage my platform to do some of these things, I said, Let’s think about something in a nontraditional sense to provide a practical solution. My brain is wired to figure out new ways to solve problems.

That’s where the idea for portable washing stations for homeless people in downtown came from. People would tell us, I’m afraid I’m going to contract COVID because I don’t have anywhere to wash my hands. All the public places have closed. For us, our minds go to an empathetic place mixed with thinking about design. What can we prototype out to see if it will work to solve this issue? Years ago, Love Beyond Walls started getting RV donations. We repurposed them into temporary shelters. What could we repurpose to solve the handwashing need? We removed those sinks from the RVs and converted them into outdoor mobile sinks.

A majority of our population that we work with are Black. I’m constantly thinking about systemic issues in Black and brown communities that lend themselves to people becoming impoverished. We could talk about the war on drugs, stop-and-frisk, voter suppression. But the systemic injustices don’t stop. It inspires us to do more and adds fire to our work. We are educating people who lack empathy for impoverished communities. But they also lack understanding about the injustice that persists against Black and brown people. Most people are wired to view service as a moment in time—the volunteer activity, the cleanup. What does it mean to view service as a lifestyle?

It takes courage to be poor. It takes courage to wake up every single day, to breathe and exist, knowing that you might not have access to a coronavirus test, or you’re laid off with no hope of securing unemployment money, or you don’t have adequate access to healthcare. You’re considered an essential worker but are paid minimum wage. So many people could let hopelessness take over. But they keep on.

This article appears in our August 2020 issue.