That night was cold.
The kind of cold that cuts cleanly into the marrow of the bone, settling in for a long stay. Our teeth chattered audibly, and I spent the whole night wracked with violent shivers, attempting to keep the icy frigidity at bay. All night I begged for sleep to come, curled up in an impossibly small ball, thinking resolutely of a warm day at the beach hoping the cold would somehow miraculously cease.
Elizabeth’s backyard had an awning under which we slept, and under the awning was a rough gravel that poked at our backs the entire night. Pain is a brain stimulant a million times stronger than coffee, and so none of us slept a wink. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for the alarm that went off at 6 AM, signaling the end of the night.
It was a somber 5 mile walk to the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center (OAC). In our current state of exhaustion, the black trash bags seemed significantly heavier on our backs than they were the previous night.
But while walking through the city, my groggy mind picked up on something. I have an appetite for big cities that was voracious and even in my sleep-deprived state, I could tell that something was missing.
Atlanta is beautiful. The overpasses we trekked under were donned with the most vibrant street art, plastered across the grimy walls in a breathtaking act of defiance. We passed a memorable piece with a huge “CANCER IS BEATABLE” sprawled over it in a gold that seemed to inspire hope in those who saw it. The city’s life force is in the art, no doubt.
But as a California native in love with San Francisco, I wondered where the cultural vibrance was. Where were the street performers and roadside stalls? The caricature artists and landscape painters? And while I know every city is different in the way it portrays its diversity and pride, I always thought these would be a constant, if only because exploiting tourists seemed like a good business model.
I didn’t find out until later that Atlanta had outlawed street performers because it looked too much like panhandling, which was unattractive to tourists. The main thing that endeared me to a city was actually seen as something negative by Atlanta’s government. Go figure.
Anyway, once we got to the OAC, we met with Kimberly, the wonderful woman who is the Executive Director and part of the backbone that keeps the organization going. She explained to us that the OAC provides many essential services to people experiencing homelessness, such as help in obtaining ID cards, job readiness training, and general advocacy.
I had no IDEA how big a deal ID cards are. Not having proper identification bars people from obtaining a job, housing and basic healthcare.
To get an ID, you need your birth certificate and a Social Security card.
But in order to get either of those things, you need ID.
I met so many people whose obtainment of an ID card was a ticket to a better life. But because they didn’t exactly have a safe place store their documents, it was close to impossible for them to get one. To make matters worse, if stopped by a police officer asked for ID, failure to present a government-issued form of identification can result in an arrest and detainment for up to 72 hours. In that time, all documents are confiscated and often not returned, so the process begins from square one.
I wondered if there were racist undertones in this law. What proportion of the stops made are to people of color? I didn’t think the OAC would have data on the question so I didn’t ask, but it was a question at the back of my mind for most of this trip. One thing was certain; I could count the number of white folks standing in line for services on my fingers.
I first worked at the art center. Art is a sort of universal medium, with no language barriers or socioeconomic differences or varying degrees of artistic ability.
One of the men in the room had a very hard face. His eyes were a striking blue, his hair was in a tangled mat of dreadlocks and he struck a tall and imposing figure. I was slightly intimidated by the intensity of his gaze as I sat opposite from him, but then when I cracked a joke, he looked at me and laughed.
It was a loud and booming laugh that seemed to fill the room with its happy glow. He had a wide grin that spread across his face in an almost boyish way, and his intense blue eyes twinkled with a new light.
It was the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.
I also worked in intake for a bit, and I met Hannah, one of the women who helped with providing some of the crisis management services. We met with a homeless man who needed a homelessness verification letter (HLV) in order to stay at the Salvation Army. His dark eyes were so sad, all I wanted to do was hold his hand and let him know it’d be okay even though I wasn’t sure if it would be.
We met with people with college degrees and previously steady jobs before some stroke of misfortune that left them hungry, homeless, and alone. One woman had been bitten by a spider, and her body had a horrible reaction to it. The doctors could not figure out what was wrong, and by the time she was diagnosed, she was permanently paralyzed on her left side.
Seriously? A spider bite?
The biggest thing I took away from the OAC is that, in short, shit happens and it happens to EVERYONE. Even a degree doesn’t necessarily keep you off the streets. And people who don’t have a safety net or a strong support system when something goes wrong are the ones affected the most.
By the end of our shift at 1 PM, we were hardly awake, so Jun and Cathy took us to Centennial Park, where we laid our blankets out on the grass. Before we could go to sleep, however, we were approached by a curious man.
“What are y’all doing? Are you with a group?”
We explained our project, and he smiled.
“That’s cool you guys. I’m homeless, myself. I was taking a shower at a shelter, and someone stole my documents, and cuz I was born in Illinois, it’s taking weeks to get my birth certificate for my ID.”
“How long has it been?”
“Seven weeks. I want to get my life on track, but I can’t get a job without it.”
It was so interesting how we were just learning about the importance of ID and here was a real life example of the reach of this systemic problem.
Before we could contemplate it too much, however, we fell asleep.
I was rudely awoken by a gruff voice.
“‘Scuse me miss. What’s going on here?”
I opened my eyes to a cop in my face. I immediately sat up, my heart beating 100 miles per hour.
“I’m sorry officer. We haven’t slept all night and so we just took a nap here.” I then explained our project to him, and he looked at me skeptically.
“Okay. Y’all will need to get up though. We don’t want to be encouraging this sort of thing.”
The comment stung. I looked at him right in the eye and asked, “What sort of thing?”
He looked slightly abashed as he said, “Sleeping on this property. People get the wrong idea.”
Centennial Park is a public property, and I had a feeling that if we were all in cute sundresses and polo shirts, we would have been left alone. We looked quite homeless, with our trash bags and day old clothes, and they didn’t want to encourage homeless people sleeping out in the open for everyone to see.
People experiencing homelessness, with nowhere to go, doing nothing but sleeping in a space created for the public, in broad daylight. What a scandal.
God forbid a tourist walk by and see someone taking a nap on a park bench.
Once we were run off the park by the cops, we were picked up by Covenant House’s Outreach bus. We were going to go to different areas where at risk youths were known to live and hand out hygiene kits.
The first place we drove is called the “Bridge to Nowhere.” It’s basically a half-destroyed bridge that ends in a 50 foot drop, and a lot of people experiencing homelessness live under it. It’s also a huge heroin hub, and Frederick, our tour guide and driver forbade us from going under the bridge to check it out.
There were used ramen packets, ripped up shirts, and empty syringes lying around at the top of the bridge.
And hanging from one of the rods was a noose made from wire.
The next place we went to is known as “The Towers.” They’re abandoned apartment buildings with all the doors and windows taken out. We could see shadows of people through the balconies, and Frederick explained to us that many kids lived here because they had no where else to go.
“The weather’s nice now, but because they have no heat or water, in the winter, a lot of them either freeze to death or jump off the top of the building to end the pain.”
To end the pain. I tried to imagine a kid my age, looking down from the top of that beige building. Or a kid huddled up in a sleeping bag, their hearts days away from freezing to a halt.
I tried to imagine a life where death is a welcome escape.
Our next destination was a place known on the streets as “The Bluff.” Frederick drove by, pointing at a laundromat where a group of people were milling about. “That’s where most kids get their heroin.”
“Oh and that store sells it out the back.”
“That one too.”
“Oh that’s a heroin dealer. He’s the one driving the Bentley. Ain’t nobody else be driving Bentleys around in this neighborhood.”
“And that’s a crack house.”
Why aren’t more people talking about this? It’s a huge reason as to why Atlanta’s issue of homelessness has gotten so out of control.
I’m definitely not trying to generalize the entire population of people experiencing homelessness as drug addicts. But from the many homeless individuals I talked to, a vast majority contributed their situation, at least in part, to an addiction. We also heard from the people running the shelters that many people coming through where battling addictions.
Addiction is only part of the huge and complex web of causes of homelessness, and it surprised me to know that law enforcement hadn’t caught on to this yet and at least squashed it where they knew it was happening. When I asked Frederick about it, he shrugged and said “the police definitely know about it, but think it’s better to let it fester in a contained area than squash it here and have a dozen more of these nooks pop up.”
Frederick dropped us off at Elizabeth’s place, and we grumbled as we spread out our trash bags, and settled down for another long night.