FLINT, MI – It could be any of us. At any time.
“We can all be there. In a flat Georgia second,” says Dallas Gatlin, 63, of Fenton, executive director of Carriage Town Ministries, the largest homeless shelter in Genesee County. “An accident can happen. An illness can happen. Suddenly you don’t have the people you depend on.”
For the better part of a decade, Gatlin has served the homeless community in Flint. Known for his generosity and commitment to every human, Gatlin had spent the previous 30 years working for General Motors in various capacities, including plant superintendent, plant manager, director of the Occupational Health and Safety Division, and the final eight years in the global manufacturing group. Working at GM provided him the opportunity to earn his master’s degree in business and travel the world.
After making it through General Motors’ bankruptcy in 2009, Gatlin retired. He always loved the work at General Motors because of the people he worked with, but times were tough. “I, personally, as a leader in GM, had to march people out the door. Which is something GM never had to do before. Good people with 27 years service,” he says.
It made sense for him to leave, he said.
And, Gatlin knew he wanted to be in a position of service. “GM was a great company for my family and me. I got to travel all over the world with GM and so it was a good era in our life, but it wasn’t fulfilling for me. … I wanted to go do something in ministry somewhere. That I could just put my whole life into.”
At the time he came to Carriage Town Ministries, the county’s largest homeless shelter had been searching for nearly a year to fill the executive director position. “I felt like Carriage Town was the place where I should be and that I might be able to bring some things that would benefit.”
Contrary to his previous “uniform,” Gatlin comfortably sat in his chair, casually dressed and sporting a black baseball cap. He has mandated a casual attire policy, making it impossible to differentiate employees from clients.
It’s important to him that the residents and visitors of Carriage Town feel at ease with the employees and volunteers.
At Carriage Town, clients can stay up to 60 consecutive days and are free to leave if they wish. Monday through Friday, clients have the option to participate in a variety of activities including local litter pick-up and grounds maintenance. The activities help build a cadence for work and helps the clients develop ownership of what they’re doing.
“People needed identity, they needed a locker, a place to keep their things. A sense of home. This isn’t my home, but this is home for me right now,” Gatlin says.
Carriage Town also assists in finding work for residents and teaching them new skills. “We can help you secure an income stream, and housing. … As long as we believe in you, and you’ve proven yourself, you’re not going to disappoint us. Our word is important. Prove yourself here, we’ll stand in the gap for you.”
In 2011, Gatlin received his doctorate in education as part of his personal success plan—a set of goals developed by every resident and employee of Carriage Town Ministries. Through his study, he realized that an important question about homelessness wasn’t being asked.
“One thing in particular was missing: For those people that had been homeless chronically but had found a way to get out of homelessness, … no one had ever asked that sampling of people, ‘How did you do that? Who helped you? How did you sustain hope?’”
He found while individual needs are different, there are some common needs: dependable income, a social support structure, and a reason to hope.
Obstacles that he helps residents overcome.
“The guiding value behind everything we do here is that every person I meet today, every person you meet today, is God’s idea. He thought of them. He made them. They are his personal project and, if that’s the case, then they deserve to be respected. They deserve to have dignity,” Gatlin says.
Gatlin makes a commitment to mentor everyone—employee and client—who comes through the doors at Carriage Town Ministry. And, he will be with them every step of the way until they walk back out the door. It’s always bittersweet, Gatlin says, but it is also a source of pride each time he sees a client or employee move on to bigger and better things.
As for Gatlin, though, he isn’t planning on going anywhere. He feels he still has work to do and feels Carriage Town Ministries in the right place to do it. “I literally pray often for God’s wisdom to make me know where I need to be right now and the days ahead. I won’t be leaving until I feel peace about it,” Gatlin says.
For more information on Carriage Town Ministries, www.CarriageTown.org.