One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Kim had a happy and carefree childhood growing up in Tampa, FL, but she had to grow up faster than most kids when her mother passed away in April 2003. When her father died only six months later, the 13-year-old’s life was turned upside down.
Kim went to live with a family member but the relationship was strained. In 2005, she jumped at the chance to move to Atlanta with some cousins. Despite the hardships she had already endured, Kim managed to graduate from high school and go on to earn a Bachelor of Music Performance with a minor in Mathematics from Reinhardt University.
“During my time at Reinhardt, I began to really explore myself and who I wanted to be. Even though I really did not have obstacles stopping me, inside I felt like no one around me understood my life as a black woman. When I graduated, the real challenges of the world hit me. I had such a hard time finding full-time employment. That was the first time that I felt homeless – all my stuff in the car not knowing where I can go.”
Kim eventually landed a job at a call center where she received excellent performance reviews. Then one day she was let go due to what Kim feels were sneaky machinations by co-workers who wanted her gone. “After that horrible situation, I was left with nothing. I became completely homeless. No car, no money, nowhere to live. Never in my life have I felt so worthless.”
At first, she couch-surfed with any friend who could take her in but that never sat well with her strong sense of personal responsibility. Tired of being a burden to her friends, Kim went to a shelter where every little thing, such as whether a light switch is turned on or off, is decided by someone else. “I spent a week there and it felt like jail. It broke my heart to see how people have been in that shelter for months and years with no way out or nothing to look forward to.”
At the shelter, Kim felt the system did more to maintain the status quo rather than help people improve their situation. “People are going up there and just waiting for something to happen. The way I grew up, you get up and you get a job and you get your own stuff. I knew this wasn’t going to work.”
Fortunately, a staff member at the shelter mentioned Lost-n-Found Youth and Kim was immediately placed into LNFY’s program. Kim knew that it was a temporary solution but now that her immediate needs were taken care of, she could focus her efforts on getting a job that would support a more permanent living situation.
“The lesson for me here has been you can categorize people in certain situations as being a certain kind of person – a homeless person is lazy or doesn’t want to work – and that’s not necessarily true. Being homeless is the situation they are in not the person they are. If you’re thinking of employing someone who has been homeless, you have to understand you’re going to be dealing with someone who doesn’t necessarily have transportation or a professional wardrobe so you’ll need to be prepared to work around those things.” – Rusty Willis
Independence With Dignity
Once again looking for a job, Kim grew disillusioned by the process. “In the first month I was in the program, I had such a hard time finding a job,” she says. “I felt I was back in the same circle as before. One day, a man came to the youth center and said he was hiring for an assistant in his real estate office.”
That man was Rusty Willis of Real Living Capital City. Rusty didn’t go to Lost-n-Found Youth looking for an employee. He was there at his partner’s invitation to browse the thrift store. Rusty was having his own employment issues having posted an office assistant position and not being satisfied with the quality of the applicants. He wanted someone who had drive and a sense of responsibly. Rusty was looking for aptitude and attitude but so far, he had not seen it.
While at the LNFY thrift store, he had an idea, “I went up to the guy at the register and asked, ‘Do you have anyone who needs a job?’ He told me to talk to Kim Massell. When I described the kind of person I was looking for, she knew exactly who I should talk to. I was getting the best possible candidate already pre-screened.“
Rusty decided he was going to hire Kim when she walked in the door for her interview. She had called earlier worried that she would be late due to erratic MARTA train schedules that day but she still arrived very close to the scheduled time. Not one to give up easily, Kim had pieced together a route requiring three bus changes to get there. Rusty says, “She didn’t know it but at that moment I thought, I’ll give her a shot. We’ll see what happens.”
Rusty also helped Kim find an apartment close to work which he says opened his eyes to the discrimination faced by LGBTQ people of color. Kim recalls, “I did the application [for an apartment] and thirty minutes later he said that someone else had just put down a deposit on that apartment.”
But they prevailed and on February 22, 2015, Kim spent her first night in her new home even though she didn’t have any furniture yet. “The first night I slept on the floor and it was the best sleep…It felt like home and I had not had that feeling since I was living with my parents.”
Kim’s six months working at Real Living Capital City have been productive. With Rusty’s encouragement and support she recently received her real estate license. “Having a license is a critical job function,” Rusty says, “and now we can start expanding what she can do. It benefits her and it benefits us.” Kim says, “ I feel like I can push myself to do more. Before I was living day-by-day and now I can plan ahead and explore my options in real estate.”
“If it was not for Lost-n-Found and Rusty, I don’t know where I would be now,” says Kim. “I believe God puts people in the right place at the right time. Even though I had to experience things no person should have to go through, I know that my past only makes me stronger. I pray every day that I will be able to help someone as much as I been helped by Lost-n-Found.”