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A Mother-Daughter Mission to Fight Homelessness in Atlanta - Mercedes Kane

On Christmas Eve of 2022, a day when many moms were scrambling to wrap gifts, stuff stockings and make pies, Sherri McCoy and her then 10-year-old daughter Rose took to the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. The weather was a bitter 9 degrees Fahrenheit, though it felt like 9 below with the 16-mile-per-hour winds sweeping across the quiet city. They bundled up and packed their vehicle, nicknamed the Kemper Kindness Van, with tents, sleeping bags, coats, and ready-to-eat foods like bean soup with ham.

Sherri and Rose passed out over 700 pairs of hand warmers and 400 emergency blankets to more than 325 unhoused people that evening. They printed and distributed hundreds of flyers listing places where people on the streets could take shelter from the brutally low temperatures. Through chattering jaws, some people asked Sherri to pray with them. She did before returning to the van, letting her tears fall, and then driving to the next stop.

Late into the evening, Mother and daughter did their best to get people to come in from the cold, and they supplied sleeping bags stuffed with hand warmers to those who refused. Still, some rough sleepers did not survive the record-setting December freeze. The Fulton County coroner sent Sherri pictures of John and Jane Does they’d found dead on the street. She was able to identify some who were otherwise nameless.

Three months later, on a drizzly April afternoon, Sherri is once again behind the wheel of her 2007 Honda Odyssey. The minivan’s suspension isn’t what it used to be, and it bounces as she navigates the rough pavement of East Atlanta. The rear hatch of the maroon van strains to contain everything from shrink-wrapped cases of bottled water to a bookshelf, a disassembled shoe rack, and two super-sized pastel blue boxes of Pampers diapers. Everything in the van, even the van itself, was donated by people Sherri has met online or in person.

Sherri stands a curvy 5’11” and has broad shoulders and long, graceful arms that wrap around people who need hugs and tote heavy loads with equal ease. She regularly handles crates of canned goods and other pantry staples, gently used clothing, blankets and whatever else people need. She has deep brown eyes, warm umber skin and tight waves of curly hair that she tucks behind her ears and out of her face. At age 47, she radiates both kindness and authority. Rose, now 11 years old, often rides shotgun when she is not at school or with her dad, Jameen Robbins.


It’s a Wednesday during work hours so Rose is in class. Even though the preteen can’t be by her mom’s side as much these days, Rose is the reason Sherri’s van bobs southbound on Moreland Avenue towards Conley, Georgia. Rose is the person whose big heart changed the direction of Sherri’s life three years earlier. Tall like her mama, Rose is a talkative middle schooler with a wide playful grin who uses her hands almost as much as her words to communicate. It’s clear that the duo have a close bond, even if Rose describes Sherri as somewhere in-between “cringy and awesome.”

Sherri pulls up to a one-story red brick ranch house where an 11 Alive news crew is toting equipment toward the carport. When Sherri pops open the van’s rear hatch to unwedge the Pampers, a plastic water bottle makes its escape and rolls toward the gutter.

She snaps the hatch shut and greets the local reporter, Tracey Amick Peer, who has come to score the kind of human-interest story that leads the evening broadcast. In this case, a sympathetic family with little kids ripped off by scammers who have left them penniless and without a place to live.

What viewers of the 6 p.m. news won’t know is that Sherri McCoy is the one who tipped off the station. Sherri has been helping Nikki Sampson survive one day at a time, and now she’s kicking it up a notch by putting Nikki in front of the camera. Stress tears are leaking from Nikki’s eyes when she opens the door for Sherri, her one-year-old son Christian snug on her hip. She smiles in relief as Sherri pulls her in for a tight hug.

“What are you crying about?” Sherri asks, her singsong voice filled with genuine concern. She coaxes Christian, clad in footie pajamas covered with puppies, into her own arms. “Come on, come on,” she coos. “You know me, little Christian.” She reassures Nikki and shoos her into a bedroom to freshen up before being on camera.

Nikki’s middle son, three-year-old Zyair, bounds into the small boxy kitchen with superhero panache. He shakes his braided mane before wrapping himself around Sherri’s leg. Sherri ushers the boys to the empty living room and, at Zyair’s request, lifts them both onto a plastic scooter and pushes them in tight, dizzying circles as they whoop giddily.

Nikki reappears and everyone makes their way outside towards the tripod-mounted camera being adjusted by the news videographer stationed under the carport.

“How many children do you have?” Tracey asks. Nikki tells her three boys, “Wow, I have three children too, but only one boy,” the reporter says. “Boys love their mama.”

Nikki beams proudly. A few minutes later, the camera is rolling, and Tracey positions the 11 Alive logoed microphone near Nikki’s mouth. “Okay,” Tracey starts. “Tell me how you got here.”

Nikki launches into the details of her ordeal. She and Terrey White, her husband, had not had a secure place to live for some months, but as they slogged from relatives’ homes to budget hotels to their car, they saved enough money to make a deposit and pay first month’s rent on a house. She found what looked like their dream home on Zillow, reached out, and got a reply from a man who said he was the property manager. She toured the house on her own and promptly signed a lease, handing over nearly $3,000 to his associate whom she met at a local coffee shop.

“I get this house and I think all my pain is over,” Nikki tells Tracey while the camera runs. But hours after they moved in, the real property manager showed up and told them they had been scammed and had one week to move out. Everyone in her family is a wreck. “It’s heartbreaking, devastating. ‘Why we can’t go home, Mommy? Why we ain’t at home?’ This wasn’t our home in the first place.”

While Nikki recounts her shock and disappointment to the reporter, Sherri is out by the street talking with a representative from the actual property management company, Progress Residential. The Progress employee is empathetic, but not surprised. These scams happen often, leaving families like Nikki’s with little recourse.

Sherri learned about the family’s plight only four days earlier but now sees herself as the bulwark between them and the streets.

Nikki’s crisis is the latest in a series of urgent community matters that Sherri has tackled since 2020 when she launched Blessing Bags of Warmth for the Homeless as a non-profit organization. She spends most days riding a circuit in the Honda Odyssey: dropping off food, checking on unhoused residents in East Atlanta and snapping photos or capturing videos that promote her work and the need for more community donations and involvement. She has nearly eight thousand followers on Facebook and around 1,400 on Instagram.

Blessing Bags of Warmth is an operation of one and it – she – appears to operate around the clock and with very little funding. Although she applies for and sometimes receives small grants, the majority of the organization’s donations come in because she has made an appeal for a person or family with immediate, specific needs. She has rounded up everything from infant formula and diapers to overcoats, blankets, hand warmers and sleeping bags.

In fact, that’s how she acquired her van. When Sherri originally embarked on her mission, she drove a 2003 Subaru Forester that regularly broke down. Frustrated and unable to afford a new vehicle, Sherri took to Facebook and posted her desire for a Honda Odyssey that would help her reliably transport goods and the people who need them. Melissa Kemper Westbrook, an Oakhurst resident and the daughter of a recently deceased man named Dan Kemper, happened to see Sherri’s post. She offered to donate her father’s old and currently unused Odyssey to Sherri and her cause. Sherri immediately named this gift the Kemper Kindness Van. She now runs Blessing Bags of Warmth out of the weathered hauler.

When social media posts don’t do the trick, Sherri usually opens up a new credit card account, maxing it out with grocery store runs, extended stay hotel bills and the endless swipes at gas station pumps that allow her to get across the city. She pays these bills back as donations and grants come in, but she is always nagged by debt. Sherri’s drive to help people in need, whether she meets them at a homeless encampment, a food pantry, or a senior housing center, outweighs any worries she might have about money or exhaustion.

Sherri knows what it means to be unseen and overlooked because she’s been there. She was born on a military base in Germany and was adopted by a couple who moved her to West Atlanta when she was three years old. They divorced a few years later and her mother took custody of Sherri. Custody, however, is not the same as care. Her adopted mother suffered from untreated mental illness and Sherri endured horrifying emotional and physical abuse.

When Sherri was 11 years old, the same age Rose is now, a middle school PE teacher noticed fresh bruising and deep welts along her legs and alerted the authorities. Sherri was removed from her mother’s home and went to live with her adoptive father and his second wife, where she stayed on and off before graduating high school in 1994.

She married Scott Buford in 2005 and while they tried to have a baby of their own, Sherri instead had repeated miscarriages, by her count 13 in total. Scott eventually died from asthma-induced heart failure in 2010. He took his last breath in Sherri’s arms.

Sherri sank into depression and developed debilitating migraines after her husband’s death.


“Right after Scott died, I seriously contemplated suicide,” Sherri told me while sipping a mocha latte on the patio of a local coffee shop. “I thought, ‘I’m tired. My husband’s gone. I’ve had all these miscarriages. I don’t have any children who need me. I don’t have a reason to be here.’”


One day after leaving an office job she despised, Sherri put her plan into action.


“I actually went to a plus-sized thrift shop to select the outfit I was gonna kill myself in,” she winced. “Because I wanted to be cute when I was found.”


In true Sherri style, she instead began a friendship with the store’s owner LeToya Turner, who coaxed her into an impromptu fashion show and helped her see her own beauty.


Sherri eventually found comfort in her small circle of friends, including LeToya and Jameen Robbins, whom Sherri briefly dated before realizing her feelings for him were tender, but not romantic.

Five months after Jameen and Sherri decided to stay friends, Sherri received shocking news from her doctor. She was 23 weeks pregnant with a baby girl. Two weeks later, Rose Marie Eva Louise Robbins entered the world weighing only one pound and eight ounces. She was considered a micro preemie with a slim chance of survival, but like the mother who birthed her, Rose was a fighter.

Jameen and Sherri may not have made sense as a couple, but as coparents they thrived. Early on they decided to live as one family, first on their own and later in a larger East Atlanta house that they still share with Jameen’s father.

Sherri is the kind of mom who believes in focusing her daughter’s attention on life’s possibilities and not its limitations. She took Rose as her guest to an event with Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens and told her daughter she might fill that seat someday. Sherri has always been community-minded, and she’s taken Rose to volunteer events since she was a toddler. As a young girl, Rose was eager to help, joining her mom regularly to deliver food and supplies to homeless encampments.


The Covid-19 pandemic changed Rose’s view of charity and shifted Sherri’s effort into high gear. Rose was eight, and without school to focus on she tuned in on the realities of homelessness and poverty. She also became more determined than ever that she and her mom could do something substantial to help.

When Thanksgiving 2020 neared, public health officials told large families not to gather for their ritual holiday meal. Sherri prepared a feast, and packaged up meals for close relatives in the area. She still had enough food for 40 more people, all packed up in plastic to-go containers.

“Rose!” She called out to her daughter. “We’re gonna go find our friends under the bridge and if there’s not forty people there, there’s a couple of other places that mommy knows downtown. Let’s see if we see anybody else.”

Sherri and Rose loaded the warm food into insulated containers and headed for an encampment of 15 tents under a bridge in the Capital Gateway area of Atlanta. As soon as Sherri put her Forester into park, Rose hopped out.

“Get that baby back into the car,” came a yell from one scruffy man. Rose ignored him and began unloading containers filled with oxtail, turkey, ham, boiled corn, mashed potatoes, pecan pie and more.

“How was your Thanksgiving?” Sherri asked the men and women who seized the containers as soon as she held them out.

"I’m homeless. What do you mean, how was my Thanksgiving? I’ve been out here,” growled one man before allowing a smile to fill his face. “But it got better today.”

Once everyone had taken all the food they could carry, Sherri and Rose closed up the coolers. Another man shuffled over and inquired if they might have any blankets. Rose darted to the back of the car, retrieving a Vera Bradley floral-printed quilt that was Sherri’s favorite.

“Mommy, can we give him this?” Rose whispered loudly. Sherri sighed and murmured a hesitant yes, watching as Rose handed the man the designer blanket. He wrapped it around himself and grinned so widely Sherri could see where many of his teeth should have been.

More of the encampment’s residents requested blankets and other supplies, but all Sherri and Rose had in the car was a picnic throw. They gave that away before reluctantly saying goodbye to their friends under the bridge.

As she accelerated her Subaru away from the camp, Sherri noticed tears streaming down Rose’s cheeks. “Baby, what’s wrong?”

“We need more blankets,” Rose said softly. More blankets morphed into a plan to stuff 40 backpacks with blankets, hand warmers, snacks and hygiene kits. Rose donated her own money to the effort – the $200 her grandma had sent her for Christmas to buy a dollhouse she had pined over for months.

Sherri and Rose raised more money, filled the 40 bags and tied each one with a “blessing tag” that contained a hopeful message for its recipient. As soon as they finished handing them out, Rose told an astonished Sherri, “I can’t wait to do this again next weekend.”

Rose named their effort Blessing Bags of Warmth for the Homeless. A local graphic designer quickly signed on to design the organization's logo. For inspiration Sherri sent him a photo of Rose handing a man one of their backpacks, along with Rose’s art direction.


“I knew I wanted the homeless man to be colored blue which shows he’s cold,” Rose explained. “And I am red which represents warmth. The warmth curls around the blue and the blue curls around the warmth.”


Fulfilling the organization’s mission quickly became Sherri’s full-time job. It’s a demanding position that doesn’t pay well, or sometimes at all. Sherri, Rose and Jameen continue to live in Jameen’s father’s home and scrape by most months.


Rose, meanwhile, has since grown into a tween who is now understandably more involved with friends and school. It’s Sherri whom East Atlanta Village residents tag on social media when they see a person in need. It’s Sherri who races to the grocery store to pick up milk and eggs for low-income seniors. It’s Sherri who fills the area’s outdoor pantry and hosts clothing drives. In a rapidly gentrifying part of Atlanta where new residents are wealthier and whiter than Sherri, she remains the primary person soliciting donations to feed and care for people who are left further behind than she is.

Nearly two weeks after Sherri helped get Nikki’s story on the 6 p.m. news, she had raised $2,290 of the $5,000 she was hoping for. Some of that money has been used to pay for lodging at a no-frills extended-stay hotel. Despite her many calls to property managers and tireless outreach to individuals and groups, she had not yet found a home for Nikki’s family that they could afford. She knows that some people who routinely call on her to help street people own rental property. Others could contribute to help the family buy or rent a starter house if they wanted.

Her frustration peaked and she shot a video of herself in the parking lot of the extended stay. In an unusual display of heated irritation, Sherri’s voice trembled as she waved the hotel bill in the air and howled with anger into her phone’s shaky camera.

“I can’t help but feel like I failed them,” Sherri told her thousands of followers. “Y’all! Somebody can see this post and help me find them a house, two bedrooms or more for $1,200 a month. Help me keep this family safe and out of a hotel and out of homelessness.”


Her voice cracked loudly as she abruptly ended the video. The day after she shared her rant, she was worried about how it would land.

“I’m kind of kicking myself for posting it,” she said. “I’m like, maybe I should delete that because I almost look like – and I hate this term – an angry Black woman.”

Sherri didn’t delete the post. After raising only a couple hundred more dollars, she eventually connected Nikki to other organizations and resources. She talked to a potential employer on Nikki’s behalf and when Nikki landed the job, Sherri asked for donations of professional clothing for the newly employed mom.


Across a cheese pizza after school one night, Sherri asks Rose what she thinks Blessing Bags of Warmth For the Homeless will look like five years from now.


“In five years, I think Blessing Bags of Warmth will have its own board and we’ll also have more volunteers to help out instead of it being just us,” Rose says confidently.

“Helping the homeless, it's easy and hard at the same time because you never know which way things will go.”


“Yes,” Sherri agrees, her voice distant as she watches Rose nibble a floppy slice of pizza. “It’s hard when you have to say no. When you can’t help enough.”

 

As a storyteller, Mercedes Kane is forever fascinated by the human experience and the many ways to explore and express that experience. Founder of Daisy May Films, she most recently directed the feature films ART AND PEP (2022, Peacock), MORE WITH LESS: THE POWER OF HBCUs IN AMERICA (2022) and WHAT REMAINS: THE BURNING DOWN OF BLACK WALL STREET (2021, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture) about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. ART AND PEP premiered at OutFest in Los Angeles, before winning the Audience Award at the Chicago International Film Festival and premiering on Peacock in June of 2023. Her third feature length documentary, the award-winning BREAKFAST AT INA’S, premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival before screening at 50+ international film festivals, then being acquired by American Public Television. Mercedes’ latest nonfiction exploration is both a documentary film and narrative non-fiction article. SOUND MEMORIES tells the story of the memory choir movement changing the way America thinks about dementia and memory loss. In addition to her film work, Mercedes is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Georgia.

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