In July 2021, William Price had been sleeping on a downtown sidewalk for several months. Released from a three-year stint in prison in the midst of the pandemic, he’d found he had nowhere to go: While incarcerated, he’d lost his job, his home, and his mother, who died of Covid-19. “When I got out, the city had changed,” he said.
An only child, Price had no network to turn to for support, and he had little luck with local organizations that help those seeking shelter; he struggled to navigate various eligibility requirements and balked at strict house rules and curfews. He worried about the sanitary conditions: Covid, bed bugs, grimy community showers. He felt safest, cleanest, and most at home in his tent near the Georgia Capitol, where he could choose his own neighbors and inhabit his own space. It came with trade-offs: He didn’t have an address, which would help his job search. There were only three public bathrooms nearby, open only during limited hours. And, from time to time, the police would come by during an encampment sweep, taking Price’s tent and what few personal belongings he had and discarding them.
So, last July, Price found himself standing outside City Hall at the first press conference for the Atlanta Homeless Union, a homeless-led organization he founded with his friend Murdoch, along with allies from the mutual aid group Sol Underground. A few days before, the Union had camped overnight on the City’s property to protest its treatment of unhoused people and to articulate their needs: homes, healthcare, water. Atlanta city council and mayoral races were underway, and the two were hoping whoever got elected would be more amenable to a conversation.
The homeless union would bring even more visibility to an issue long evident in downtown Atlanta, where unhoused people gather near the picnic tables in Woodruff Park, along the stairs at the Five Points MARTA station, and in clusters of tents near the Capitol. Instead of being helped, many felt they were being ostracized and criminalized. “If we have to go to jail today, we will,” Murdoch said, standing next to a plaque honoring the Atlanta Student Movement. The Union laid out its list of demands, which included, prominently, a seat at the table. “The City is busy talking to everyone except us about what we need,” AHU posted to Instagram. “We need to be consulted about the policies that will impact our lives.”
Chief among these was the encampment sweeps, a regular fact of life for people living on the street in Atlanta. Depending on where unhoused people have pitched their tents, different nonprofit or city-related groups can throw their belongings away and force them to leave—sometimes offering shelter placement, sometimes threatening to call the police. Part of AHU’s mission was to push back on the public messaging about the sweeps: When APD’s HOPE Team (Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement), for instance, posted on Twitter about a successful day of outreach, the Homeless Union retweeted it, saying, “You call [it] outreach, but we call it what it is: going into people’s home and destroying their things.” From the organization’s perspective, the sweeps—in addition to disrupting the day-to-day lives of unhoused people—sow distrust between the unhoused community, their advocates, and the City, bespeaking a desire to simply make people experiencing homelessness disappear rather than trying to meet their long-term needs. (APD spokesperson Steve Avery said the HOPE team provides notice of encampment closures “a few weeks in advance,” and tries to establish relationships with unhoused people in hopes that they’ll voluntarily accept referrals to service providers. Avery continued, “Hopefully, in the long run through positive constant engagements the individual will decide to seek the services provided by the city and its partners.”)
“There’s intentionality, to drive the homeless out of the city—raiding encampments, putting fences up around parks, putting barricades around locations where homeless people sleep,” said Marshall Rancifer, who has worked to serve unhoused people, mostly on his own, in the metro for the last 24 years. “They hide them, disappear them.” This manifests, Rancifer said, in things like fences around the lawn in a park that unhoused people used to frequent, “and a new sign that reads, ‘We’re letting the grass rest.’ White folks were still taking their dogs in the grass—but no homeless Black people were there anymore.” (More than 85 percent of unhoused people in Atlanta are Black.)
The sweeps are only one mode of hostility that unhoused people say they experience—there’s also the hostile architecture (concrete barriers on sidewalks, dividers in the middle of benches) and loitering and public sleeping statutes that can put them at risk of arrest. This constant shooing was one of the union’s frustrations: being forced out of sight, hidden in shelters. People routinely avoid eye contact with unhoused people on the street, call the police when they’re in the park, and request encampment sweeps when their tents are visible from the Interstate.
Rancifer is intimately familiar with such indignities. He said he’s lived three lives: before, during, and after his struggle with substance abuse in the 1990s. Rancifer worked as a DeKalb County police officer, in narcotics, from 1979 until 1991. He tried crack cocaine for the first time after he left the force, and his experience with addiction led him to go unsheltered for more than four years. “When I decided to get help, I was looked at like a piece of shit,” he said. “I was looked down upon like I was the scourge of the earth. I had destroyed my life and all I was asking for was help to get it back.”
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In 1984, when Dr. Elizabeth Beck began volunteering at a women’s shelter in Washington, D.C., there wasn’t yet a widely accepted term for people experiencing homelessness—the public called them “street people” and “bag ladies.” In the decades leading up to the ’80s, homelessness tended to be episodic rather than chronic: People experienced homelessness during economic downturns, but the issue wasn’t as prominent a part of the American landscape, thanks in part to the social safety net originally constructed by the Roosevelt administration as part of the New Deal.
What scholars refer to as the modern era of homelessness emerged in the 1970s and ’80s, propelled by urban renewal, the closing of public mental institutions, the millions of jobs lost to deindustrialization, the early-’80s economic recession, and the austerity budgets embraced by the Carter and Reagan administrations. Under the guise of preventing fraud, for instance, and citing the racist trope of the “welfare queen,” President Ronald Reagan drastically cut federal programs for the poor; in the following decade, the U.S. homeless population quadrupled, according to some estimates. And just as the federal government cut funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. lost thousands of affordable housing units as wealthier residents began moving back into cities. It was also in the ’80s that the issue of “homelessness” exploded into public view—no longer characterized by the “tramps” and “hobos” of an earlier era, or by men living in downtown single-room-occupancy buildings, but by entire families living on the streets.
“We live in a country that produces the condition of homelessness,” said Beck, a professor in the school of social work at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and coauthor of The Homelessness Industry: A Critique of U.S. Social Policy. What arose in place of the social safety net was a network of nonprofits, private providers, and police agencies, according to Beck—essentially, a system that treated the symptoms of homelessness rather than the causes. It also tended to shift blame away from policy mechanisms and toward perceived individual failures.
Without significant government intervention, Beck realized, the best she and other advocates could do was spend time one-on-one with the women in the D.C. shelter where she volunteered—helping them apply for their Social Security checks and treating them as equals. Though she didn’t call it that at the time, Beck was doing mutual aid, the term for a philosophy of collective problem-solving that eschews “charity” in favor of people working together in solidarity to achieve common goals. “Mutual aid, by definition, is getting its view of what the problem is from people who are experiencing the problem, not from the experts,” Beck told me. “Its ability to help mass amounts of people is limited, but it’s humanizing, and if we can start the process of humanizing, then we can start the process of change.”
That’s the spirit in which Sunny Leon, a 22-year-old who graduated from GSU with a degree in anthropology, got involved in the work. In the fall of 2020, Leon rented a space in Grove Park for Sol Underground, which they’d envisioned as space for Black liberation for people in the neighborhood and folks in their own activist circles. One night, walking to dinner, they passed a few men sleeping on the sidewalk and decided to bring them back food. Leon and their friends started handing out meals and spending time with unhoused people downtown, primarily at the corner of Martin Luther King and Central, where several elderly people and people with disabilities stayed. Eventually, some of them asked for tarps and sleeping bags. As the weather started to cool, Sol Underground bought backpacks and filled them with snacks and hand warmers.
“We were doing the little we could do with the little money we had,” Leon said. Eventually, Sol bought an eight-by-10-foot tent and a couple of patio heaters and built Sol Below, a portable warming station where anybody who wanted to could warm up with hot coffee and cider from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every night the temperature dipped below 36 degrees. In January 2021, Leon contacted “every famous person I could think of,” including one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, to ask if they would help get people out of the cold. BLM Los Angeles donated $50,000 to put 90 unhoused people in a motel for a week. Leon and a friend created a GoFundMe and raised another $36,000 to cover food, MARTA cards, and laundry. It was the first time they had ever coordinated a motel stay. Leon was working as a graphic designer at a nonprofit and had no plans to do mutual aid work full-time. “The whole goal was to empower people to be able to talk for themselves,” Leon said. “It was just kind of a natural progression for the homeless union to form.”
Sol Underground supported Murdoch and Price as they planned their first protest in July 2021, which would end about 13 hours later with nine arrests, including Leon’s (for criminal trespassing at City Hall). They bailed out and stood for their first press conference a few days later. After the protest and press conference, members of the Union were notified (via flyer) that their regular encampment, on a sidewalk near Central Presbyterian Church, would be forcibly removed so a film crew could set up in the area. (The crew denied requesting the encampment sweep.) Two days later, APD displaced the unhoused community, seizing tents and some belongings. “They sent social workers from the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District to offer to take us into shelters,” the union’s press release recounted afterward. “This is a common and absolutely unacceptable practice in Atlanta. Instead of providing real housing solutions, they want to hide us.” (In a statement, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District said it wants its role to be “a supportive one to those experiencing homelessness in that we strive to directly connect individuals to immediate shelter, as well as treatment facilities, and care providers. ADID’s role is not enforcement; we are community collaborators.”) After a wave of outrage on social media, the production studio offered to work with the union and Sol to provide six nights in a hotel, transit cards, and replacement tents.
The City has denied that it conducts sweeps on behalf of private actors, though accusations have dogged it: In 2019, for instance, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms disputed suggestions that a series of homeless sweeps was related to the upcoming Super Bowl. It wouldn’t have been without precedent: Just before the 1996 Olympics, Fulton County offered unhoused people one-way bus tickets out of town, and the city was sued by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless over police sweeps allegedly targeting Black men. The Task Force said that police officers—carrying around arrest papers preprinted to read “African-American male” and “homeless”—used panhandling and loitering ordinances to arrest some 9,000 people. The City settled, but the hostility some downtown businesses held for unhoused people never quite dissipated.
In November, the New Georgia Project contacted Leon, offering to sponsor a motel stay—this time, 18 people for one month. Primarily associated with voting rights, NGP saw the outreach as a way to support and engage voters passionate about economic and housing justice. “The issue of whether or not somebody has a house to live in and food to eat and a way to keep themselves alive is an issue that you should [factor into] who you vote for,” said Eric Robertson, a senior organizer at NGP. “The people who are causing these problems are elected.”
Plus, he said, he saw Leon taking on a system that “wasn’t designed to actually solve the problem of homelessness,” and he wanted to help. “I’ve been organizing for a long time,” Robertson told me. “I’m about to be 48. I know that we need a whole new generation of fighters. When I see someone like Sunny come on the scene, I want to throw gasoline on that fire.”
One of the people involved in the NGP-funded stay was 61-year-old Mary Bowens. Bowens is from Hawaii, which is where she met her husband of 31 years, who was stationed there in the military. After they were married in 1979, his career took the couple and their two children across the U.S. and around the world. They lived in six U.S. states, Germany, and Japan. When Mary’s husband was honorably discharged for a heart condition in the 1990s, the two moved to Mississippi, bought a trailer, and put it on his stepfather’s land. After Mary’s husband died in 2010, she lived awhile with her daughter and grandson in Atlanta, but she began to feel like a burden and decided to move back to Mississippi. In April 2013, Mary packed her bags and headed to the Greyhound station downtown, where she waited for her in-laws to send a bus ticket that never came. The police came by and asked if she was homeless, and she said yes. She slept in a shelter for the first time that night.
Since then, Bowens has been in and out of housing. I met her in November in the conference room at a Motel 6, where she and Leon were scrolling through Airbnb listings on Leon’s laptop. Earlier that day, Bowens said, her grandson had FaceTimed her from Chicago to check in on her. “When I picked up the phone, he said, ‘Aloha, Nana.’ I said, ‘Pehea ‘oe, how are you?’ He said, ‘Maika‘i au, doing fine.’ Then, he said, ‘Let me see your face, Nana. You sure you’re okay?’
“I don’t like lying to them,” Bowens continued, “but I don’t want them worrying. I don’t talk to them as often as I should. Sometimes, I won’t even answer the phone when they call because it hurts me.” Over the years, Bowens has had opportunities to live with her children, but she fears being a burden—every time she accepts help from them, Bowens said, she feels like she’s taking away from her grandchildren. “I want to try and do things myself; I want to be the strong woman that I know I still am,” Bowens said. “I’m not weak. I’m gonna backslide sometimes, but that’s life. I got to remember that I can push forward.”
At the Motel 6, Bowens and Leon were trying to find a place for Bowens to stay that’s affordable and close to public transportation, and where she’ll feel safe. (Bowens says she’s been sexually assaulted twice since she lost access to steady housing.) Two older hotel residents, James and Victor—Leon referred to them and Bowens as “elders”— came down to the conference room for lunch. Leon was also helping the men find someplace to go in a month, when the motel money from NGP dried up, and was worried about their health: “If they go back out on the street, and it’s cold and wet, they could get sick. They could die.” The motel stay was a win for Leon, but it was bittersweet: “We’re picking people up. But when the end of this stay comes, we gotta drop them back off. And that’s not a good feeling. The trio that you saw, the older folks, they’re absolutely not going back. I would rather put them in my apartment.”
But Leon was staying positive. They asked Bowens what housing looked like for her: an apartment, a house, an extended-stay motel? (“I try not to assume I know what people want,” Leon said. “I barely know what I want.”) They scrolled through a few listings. Bowens picked out a couple options before she headed back up to her room to answer a few texts from her daughter.
• • •
Despite criticisms from advocates, Atlanta has experienced some successes over the past decade, reducing homelessness in Atlanta and Fulton County by almost half: Today, the city has about 3,200 unhoused people, down from 6,000 a decade ago. One conspicuous achievement, in fact, came at the height of the pandemic, when Atlanta was the site of a makeshift experiment in large-scale rehousing: Partners for Home, the nonprofit that leads homelessness programming in the city, converted a derelict Summerhill hotel into bridge housing, then used federal pandemic relief funds and private philanthropic dollars to move hundreds of previously unhoused families into apartments. Though the initiative was successful, some residents of the neighborhood—which, in recent years, has seen some economic revitalization following a long period of neglect—opposed having a shelter nearby. The program expired in May 2021.
Partners for Home is the lead agency for Atlanta’s continuum of care—a group of more than 150 government, nonprofit, business, and community organizations working to end homelessness in the city. The continuum of care model was established by the Housing and Urban Development department in 1994 to organize communities’ efforts to serve unhoused people, and to track the efficacy of those services. Previously, multiple organizations from the same city or county might each apply for HUD dollars and dole them out on their own; under the CoC framework, one organization in a given geographical area plays a coordinating role.
The Atlanta CoC gets a fraction of the HUD funding that other CoCs with comparable homeless populations get—“so we’re already working with one hand behind our back,” said Partners for Home CEO Cathryn Vassell. That’s because the City of Atlanta used to be in a trijurisdictional continuum of care partnership with Fulton and DeKalb counties, working with a combined $14 million a year. In 2014, the three CoCs split, taking disproportionate shares of the federal money with them: In 2020, Fulton had 162 households experiencing homelessness, DeKalb had 221, and Atlanta had 2,917; Fulton received $2.5 million, DeKalb received $6.1 million, and Atlanta received $8.6 million. “When comparing the number of households impacted by homelessness with monies awarded to the respective CoC, there is room to question whether the amount is enough to address the need,” Vassell said. On top of that, Vassell said, other cities also have dedicated revenue streams, like earmarked Airbnb, restaurant, or sales taxes (in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles, respectively).
Services for unhoused people are being underfunded at the same time Atlanta is becoming a harder place in which to gain a foothold. The city is at a breaking point, said Raphael Holloway, the CEO of the Gateway Center—a homelessness services center located downtown. The average one-bedroom in Atlanta costs roughly $1,600 a month. “Today, I drove past a Wendy’s. They’re paying $12 an hour,” Holloway said. “If I take this position, I can’t live anywhere near that Wendy’s.” Atlanta has only 29 affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income families who need them. (Much of the metro’s newly constructed apartments are classified as luxury.) It’s a compounding problem: Unaffordable rents can result in evictions, which can prevent someone from being rehoused.
One case manager who has worked at several nonprofits in the city, and who requested anonymity, helped unhoused people enter the City’s coordinated entry system and its rapid rehousing program for several years; they said it’s a “grueling and humiliating process,” in part because of the amount of documentation unhoused people are forced to provide. “Some people I worked with, it was clear that it was less stressful and alienating to be on the streets,” they said. Sometimes, to be accepted into a congregate shelter, unhoused people have to leave behind their only possessions, pets, even family members and spouses. The service provider cited transitional housing programs where clients’ days are being documented and they don’t have control over when or what food they eat—plus, they’re given chores and made to abide by house rules, like strict curfews.
Partners for Home doesn’t support such policies—“Having curfews, requiring sobriety, requiring treatment or mental health compliance: We disagree with all that,” Vassell said—but it also doesn’t have much say in the matter. Many shelters in Atlanta are privately funded and operated, meaning neither the City nor Partners for Home can control them. One site calling itself an emergency shelter does intake only on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m. Other shelters separate families, refusing access to same-sex spouses and teenage boys. “For a person experiencing homelessness, it can be very frustrating—how to navigate the system, all the different eligibility requirements,” Holloway said. “There may be a program open to you, but maybe space is limited. Is the net big enough to catch all the people that are in need? I would say that answer is no.”
Before she ended up on the street the most recent time, Mary Bowens was staying at a shelter run by nuns, where, she said, she spent every day on her knees—cleaning, praying, more cleaning. This was in 2020. She cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for everyone. “They worked us like slaves,” Bowens told me. Then, there were the guilt trips: She was proud of the progress she was making—she’d finally quit smoking—but she always seemed to be doing something God didn’t like. One night, Bowens forgot to complete a minor chore, earning her a lecture from one of the nuns. “I finally said, You know what? I got to go,” Bowens recalled saying. “Because if I don’t, I’m gonna kick your ass. I ain’t never been to jail, ain’t planning on going to jail, ain’t planning on going for you.” She packed her bags and headed downtown to a small encampment on the corner of Martin Luther King and Central, where her friend Uncle Vic stays.
• • •
In early March, I met Sunny Leon and Mary Bowens outside Best End Brewing Co. for drinks. After the motel stay, Leon raised enough money to house the elders in an Airbnb in Stone Mountain for three months. Bowens later moved in with her boyfriend, and Leon found rooms for James and Victor to rent. Bowens’s primary care doctor connected her to a psychiatrist, a behavioral health professional, and a caseworker, who placed her on a waiting list to move into a women’s boarding house. She’s talking to her grandkids more often these days.
Since the last motel stay, Leon and other activists from Sol created a spreadsheet tracking rooms available across the city. Sol Underground’s social media presence is continuing to grow, and people have reached out to offer a room here or a basement there, sometimes for rent, sometimes just a place for someone to crash for a couple of days in an emergency. The piecemeal approach is working for now, but what Leon wants is permanent housing on a larger scale. They’ve recently been looking at old buildings that could be converted into coliving spaces. (The work of the mutual aid activists also speaks to a persistent mistrust, and lack of communication, between unaffiliated advocates and their counterparts in Atlanta’s official channels of homeless programming.)
Leon, alongside 10 members of Sol Underground, is now acting as a sort of caseworker for around 20 people—helping them access the sorts of documents and forms of ID that they need to benefit from social services, providing supplies and food and occasional shelter, supporting their autonomy and empowering them to speak for themselves. The work can be draining—and expensive. Both Leon and Marshall Rancifer spend their own money when donated funds come up short. Rancifer said he lives month to month: “I’ve been housing insecure since I’ve been doing this work.” One mutual aid worker Leon knows is currently being evicted for nonpayment of rent.
Leon, meanwhile, is thinking about what’s next. “I’m 22,” they said. “I went to school for anthropology, and I want to be an artist. There are other things that I’d like to dedicate more of my time to. Some people do this work because it makes them feel good about themselves. As much as I appreciate doing this work, it does not make me feel better. It makes me feel worse and worse the longer I do it.”
The Atlanta metro saw the highest inflation among the country’s most populous cities during 2021—nearly 10 percent, thanks, in large part, to housing. Today, about 28,000 renters in the city of Atlanta—and almost 150,000 in the metro—spend at least half of their income on shelter. And rents continue to climb: The average cost of a two-bedroom apartment has increased 27 percent in five years. Newly elected Mayor Andre Dickens has announced plans to build or retain 20,000 affordable housing units over the next eight years, and the City Council promised to contribute $15 million to the community affordable housing trust fund.
But, statewide, efforts to further marginalize unhoused folks are underway—such as Senate Bill 535, introduced in the previous legislative session by state Senator Carden Summers of Cordele, which would’ve required communities in Georgia to actively enforce anticamping laws or risk losing state funding, part of which would typically be spent on housing programs for the unhoused. Partners for Home opposed the bill, Vassell said: “This notion that we have to force people, by arresting them, to not be homeless is ludicrous.”
Eric Tars of the National Homelessness Law Center, an organization based in Washington, D.C., says that, for politicians, criminalizing homelessness is an easier sell than the alternatives. “You can pass a quick law that says it’s illegal to be on that corner and then use the police department to shoo those people away,” he said. Investing in other solutions, such as building more supportive housing, takes time, even if it would be cheaper in the long run to provide people with permanent homes.
Though SB 535 didn’t make it through the Assembly this year, it was part of a wave of antihomeless sentiment rising nationwide. A think tank called the Cicero Institute advocated for Georgia’s bill and similar ones in Texas and Arizona. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams encouraged police officers to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy regarding people sleeping or lingering for more than an hour in train stations, and ordered the rapid clearing of encampments citywide. The violence hasn’t just been policy-based: Attacks targeting unhoused people spiked last year. Someone was beheaded in Colorado. Someone was set on fire in New York. In December 2021, Miami police arrested a man who allegedly had murdered three unhoused people. In downtown Atlanta, Leon said, they’ve heard of people throwing money on the ground for unhoused people to fight over, and shooting them with frozen paintballs.
• • •
In Woodruff Park, not far from where Mary Bowens stayed and where William Price launched the Atlanta Homeless Union, a bronze statue commemorates the centennial of Rich’s Department Store—whose president, James M. Zimmerman, was among a group of businessmen in the 1980s, affiliated with the development organization Central Atlanta Progress, who advocated for a “sterile zone” downtown, “absolutely free of crime, homeless, and street people.” The statue is called Atlanta from the Ashes and depicts a phoenix lifting a woman as it rises. Under the gazebo, just a few yards away from the sculpture, Deaundrea Stephens runs a mobile kitchen called Soup or Something, which stands for Share Often Using Prayer—So Others Might Eat, Tasting and Healing In Need of God. Every first Saturday for the past five years, Stephens has served 200 homecooked meals to unhoused folks in the park.
I met Stephens there one morning earlier this year. The gazebo, where she usually sets up, was cordoned off, and the area surrounding it was occupied by newcomers: a food cart selling hot coffee with freshly baked breakfast pastries lining its windows, a couple of ice cream and hot dog stands, and a converted camper trailer selling locally brewed kombucha. She’d moved her tables to the park’s periphery, where around two dozen people were lined up on the sidewalk to grab lunch. The name of her kitchen notwithstanding, Stephens hates soup; today’s offering was ham, green beans, broccoli, rice, apples, and lemonade—all prepared in the kitchen of her Douglasville home. Stephens says much of her paycheck from UPS, where she works part-time, goes to Soup or Something. Behind the serving tables were dozens of boxes of bread and oatmeal, water bottles, clothes, women’s bras, and stacks of personal hygiene kits that Marshall Rancifer had provided.
“You know when you go to grandma’s house, you open up the refrigerator door and you just stand there and waste her light bill? I want you to be the same way here: Get whatever you want,” Stephens said. A man walked up and asked if he could have another slice of bread; she handed him the whole loaf.
After a while, another man—this one wearing a headset—walked over and asked Stephens if she could move her setup a bit farther down the sidewalk. “We need a little more space,” he said. All of a sudden, the activity around the gazebo made sense: It was a movie set. I said something to Stephens about how real it looked, and how great it would be if it were.
“Looks good,” she agreed, laughing. “But no, that’s not for us.”
This article appears in our May 2022 issue.