We woke up luxuriously late that morning, rolling out of bed at 9AM. Jon, one of the more permanent volunteers (and a person experiencing homelessness himself) had taken us out into the city to see some of the places people sleep at night. He described people huddled up in the shade of parks, parking lots and tunnels, and how the effects of winter are devastating for most of the unfortunate souls stuck in the cold.
That day we were headed to the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, a shelter better known as Peachtree & Pine. Word on the street was that it was not the most pleasant place in the world.
“Y’all are headed to P&P? Y’all be careful now.”
“I’d rather sleep outside than go in there. All sorts of shit be going down.”
“Don’t go anywhere alone. Especially the women. Stick together in there.”
We were understandably apprehensive as we approached the old, beige building. All sorts of shady characters lined up on the outside, and we all unconsciously stuck closer together as we walked around the building to the entrance.
The building smelled faintly of urine at first, the smell getting stronger the deeper you went in. The paint was peeling from the walls, and the waiting area was full of all kinds of people waiting for services. P&P provides homelessness verification letters, basic check ups, crisis management, and individual case help, in addition to being a shelter for men, women and children.
They directed us to the rooftop garden where we were going to be working, turning the soil and weeding the beds. As Joanie explained to us, there was no shortage of food for the homeless in Atlanta, but there was a shortage of nutritious food. P&P tried to remedy that by serving fresh vegetables from the garden.
When we were up there, we finally met some college students our age, who were doing an Alternate Spring Break as well. They were from Boston University, and we enjoyed the change in company.
While I was up on the roof I noticed the layout of Atlanta for the first time. The skyscrapers surrounding the decrepit shelter seemed to have a function other than to look nice.
The poverty-stricken and the privileged are physically separated, with the rich quite literally placed above the poor. The ones in the skyscrapers and penthouses can choose to look out across the city instead of down at the down-trodden, consciously or unconsciously ignoring the fact that there’s an entire world of people struggling to survive at their feet.
I’ve always loved skyscrapers, and the bird’s eye view it provided.
It’s the same bird’s eye view that’s somewhat responsible for the dehumanization of an entire population.
For lunch we all sat down with Joanie and had a discussion about the issue of poverty and how P&P comes into play.
Peachtree & Pine is what’s known as a low barrier shelter. All you need to sleep there is a TB test, which can be done on site. It’s the last resort option for most people; it’s where they go when they can’t take the cold anymore.
There was a man who came in because he had a felony and could not find a job. The reason he had that felony was because he knowingly wrote a bad check in order to get arrested. Once he was arrested and put in prison, he had warmth and shelter. But now that he’s out, he’s not able to find a job due to his felon status. And at that point, Peachtree & Pine is the only place left to go.
We’d heard rumors that it was closing, but when we asked Joanie, she laughed and said, “Well wouldn’t Mayor Reed want that!”
P&P is entirely funded by donations and run by volunteers. Apparently their government funding has been cut and the government was working to shut the facility down completely. Joanie admitted that the conditions of the shelter were problematic; housing 500 men in one poorly renovated building is no joke.
“We have problems, but we’re not going to be able to improve our programs without funding. And without improving our programs, we can’t get funding. It’s a vicious cycle.”
It’s her belief that the government wants the city to be torn down because of its less than affluent appearance. The rundown building with its congregation of shady characters doesn’t exactly scream tourist attraction, and the mayor is worried that the existence of P&P is reducing the revenue coming into the ATL.
“Renovating would fix that problem. If only we had a bit of funding…”
Where is he expecting the hundreds of people that are housed there to go? He’s already outlawed sleeping outside at night. The rest of the shelters are at full capacity. Does he just expect them to disappear?
Sweeping the crumbs under the rug only attracts more ants. Don’t let this be someone else’s problem. I urge you to advocate for Peachtree & Pine! Send letters, overwhelming the mayor’s office with our collective voices. Volunteer there, or donate whenever and whatever you can. These people deserve a place to sleep at night, and whatever the situation of P&P may be right now, Joanie is an incredible and passionate woman who will turn it all around with a bit of extra funding.
After bidding Joanie goodbye and good luck, we headed off to Central Night Shelter, which was right above the OAC. Central is a winter shelter, providing shelter for the men in the program from November to April.
Before dinner, one of the residents volunteered to say grace. He thanked God for the food on the table, a roof over his head and the strength required to work through these trying times. It amazed me how he was still able to count his blessings, even though he was experiencing homelessness. That even though it’s just about the toughest thing to go through psychologically, he was still thankful and hopeful.
“So what are you studying at Emory?” The man in front of me had deep set eyes and a kind smile.
“Neuroscience. I want to be a doctor.”
“Do you now? That’s wonderful. We need so many more women doctors in the world. Especially women doctors with a heart.” I laughed.
“How do you know I have a heart, sir?”
“Because you’re sitting here, talking to me. No one’s talked to me like this all day.”
Before I went on the trip, “the homeless” were just a group of unidentified, faceless figures. I could feel sorry for them superficially, but I couldn’t be bothered with doing more than volunteering at a soup kitchen once in a while.
But now I see real people. I hear their voices in my head, telling their stories. I see their sad eyes, imprinted on my eyelids, and I will never forget their smiles.
This trip humanized the homeless.
And to begin to fix this problem, society needs to do the same.