Police arrested nine people for trespassing on city property Monday afternoon, after “a group of protestors were found setting up tents as part of a protest to bring attention to homelessness in Atlanta,” an Atlanta Police Department (APD) statement said.
That group, the newly formed ATL Homeless Union, had pitched tents outside Atlanta City Hall as part of a demonstration “to demand housing, healthcare and a seat at the table,” according to a Monday press release from the organization.
“We are not satisfied with the limited shelters that treat us as less-than human, a warming station in the winter and some blankets,” the release continued. “We are also not satisfied with the lack of healthcare treatment we receive at Grady. No more Band-Aid solutions. We need homes. We need water. We are targeting the city until we get what we are owed.”
A main thrust of the new organization’s efforts is housing reform: Activists want to see the city money currently used for homeless shelter operations and other supportive services redirected to help “house every unhoused person in the city,” per the group’s list of demands.
Additionally, the group said, “We demand that the city invest pandemic relief funds in long-term housing solutions.”
The city is already allocating $3.5 million of the latest, $170.9 million batch of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds for affordable housing initiatives, but that and other federal money would only be a drop in the bucket when it comes to addressing Atlanta’s daunting housing affordability crisis.
Complicating the ATL Homeless Union’s efforts, though, are city ordinances that make being homeless effectively illegal, according to Marshall Rancifer, a longtime advocate for unhoused communities.
“They use a number of ‘quality of life’ charges to lock people up,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle, nodding to laws against things like panhandling, loitering and “urban camping.”
“‘Camp’ or ‘camping’ means the use of a street, sidewalk, other right-of-way and/or any area underneath a bridge, within the City of Atlanta for living accommodation purposes, such as sleeping activities, or making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping), or storing personal belongings, or making a fire, or carrying on cooking activities, or using a tent or other structure for habitation,” according to the City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances.
Gerald Griggs, a civil rights attorney and vice president of the NAACP’s Atlanta chapter, echoed Rancifer’s concerns with the city’s laws and argued that law enforcement’s actions on Monday were “unnecessary.” (APD has not yet provided police reports from the Monday incidents.)
“If Atlanta Police had simply complied with some of the demands of the protesters, they would have left,” Griggs said in an interview. “The demand was real simple: They just wanted a meeting with the mayor or one of her representatives.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office did not address Atlanta Civic Circle’s inquiries regarding whether ATL Homeless Union activists would get the “seat at the table” they demanded, although administration spokesman Michael Smith said in a statement that “assisting individuals experiencing homelessness remains a top priority.”
“The City’s continuum of care lead agency, Partners for HOME, as well as APD’s HOPE team, were on-site and provided housing assistance and resources to wraparound services to several individuals,” he said of the Monday demonstration.
Smith added that, in addition to the ARP money the city has directed toward housing affordability efforts, “At the start of the pandemic, Mayor Bottoms set aside $1.5 million in emergency funding for homeless and displaced individuals, which was matched by an additional $1.5 million in philanthropic contributions.”
“Through the non-profit Partners for HOME, we set up a comprehensive system for people experiencing homelessness to access housing assistance and wrap-around services,” he continued. “This is in addition to roughly $18 million in funding through the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act and Emergency Solutions Grant that the City aligned and coordinated through the homeless continuum of care to create 800 new permanent housing placements.”
Those efforts have placed nearly 700 people experiencing homelessness into housing with supportive services, Smith said.
Partners for HOME executive director Cathryn Marchman said she engaged with activists during the Monday demonstration and told Atlanta Civic Circle, “I will make time for them as soon as they are available.”
Marchman added that many of the group’s concerns centered around barriers for entry to services for homeless people provided by nonprofits around town, “and the city and Partners for HOME doesn’t necessarily have leverage or control over those things.”
Still, Terrance Lester, a board member with advocacy group Love Beyond Walls, said in an interview that city leaders must ramp up housing affordability efforts.
“The city has land it could leverage for this type of stable housing that people experiencing homelessness need,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle, referring to the hundreds of acres of public land planning department officials have identified as development-ready and prime real estate for affordable housing construction.
Activists gathered at City Hall again on Tuesday to demand action from city officials. No arrests were made, and the group left the property before 3 p.m.
Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, an activist who’s running for Atlanta City Council, said during Tuesday’s demonstration that Atlanta is not doing enough “to answer the [homelessness] problem in a comprehensive and robust kind of way.”
“Now is the time for change,” he said. “People can’t wait any longer.”
The ATL Homeless Union said in its press release Monday that the protests will continue until changes are made to provide the proper care for the city’s most marginalized population.
If you or someone you know is homeless, contact the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to find out what services might be available.