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I remember the very day I unknowingly began the process of homemaking inside the Peachtree-Pine shelter operated by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. It was July 1, 2014, when I started volunteering 10+ hour days providing case management services to Atlanta's unhoused and stranded.
At the time, Peachtree-Pine was the largest shelter in the Southeast, with a bunk room consisting of more than 300 beds, an open garage space in which an additional 100+ men slept in metal folding chairs, and an emergency overflow space for women and children. As Spotlight on Poverty reported, on some winter nights, "close to 1000 people have crammed into the building." The clients and long-term residents were predominantly Black. Peachtree-Pine was a low-barrier shelter which means that, unless you had been previously banned from the shelter, anybody could receive services—those who had been turned away because of occupancy restrictions, lack of identification or prior registration, or accessibility or health-related needs that other shelters could not accommodate.
After the office closed around 6 p.m. each evening, the upstairs space was converted into the women's and children's overflow area. Through the women and children, I learned how people are made vulnerable to homelessness by policies and systems, how to eavesdrop on more than one conversation at once, how to play "Slide" or "Numbers," how to pray and be covered in prayer, and how to generate mutual aid under scarce resources in violent conditions.
My doctoral dissertation, which focused on the ways Atlanta's Black children and families play under housing insecure conditions, was inspired by my experiences at Peachtree-Pine. In order to provide historical and geographical context to these conditions, I began my dissertation with a recounting of the "Atlanta Way" and the closing of Peachtree-Pine.
This is the Atlanta Way: A Primer on Cop City
The struggle today around Cop City is the result of a decades-long fight over who Atlanta belongs to, who is run for, and who it stands against. Making sense of it requires understanding the city's history of shifting dynamics of class and racial domination.
While Peachtree-Pine had its own exploitative policies entrenched in antiblackness, misogyny, and transphobia on both structural and interpersonal levels, it also served a critical role as "the emergency relief valve for a system long broken." Peachtree-Pine was considered "rock bottom." Acknowledging the discriminatory policies and restrictions at the city's privately operated shelters and the filthy conditions extant at Peachtree-Pine, it is clear why many people experience a greater sense of security by sleeping on the streets.
My short tenure as a volunteer case manager for the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless was my first introduction to the antiblack socio-political histories of the "Atlanta Way"—and the associated historical "violence of state abandonment reflected in staggering rates of poverty, employment discrimination, denial of labor protections, and environmental racism that renders Black women, queer, and trans people more vulnerable to interpersonal and community violence as well as the violence inherent in policing, criminalization and punishment." Such state-sanctioned violence provoked the founding of Peachtree-Pine shelter. Mark Pendergrast recounts the shelter's founding in his book:
The Task Force for the Homeless got its start in 1981, after seventeen homeless men died during a cold snap… In the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics… The Task Force sued the city over sweeps to clear the streets in which police carried blank arrest papers preprinted with 'African American male' and 'homeless.'
The shelter closed its doors in December 2017. In January 2019, following a 10-year legal battle, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) had sold the 28,500-square-foot facility for $6.2 million to Emory University, whose hospital is located conveniently across the street from the shelter building. The same corporate-backed and police-enforced political interests that provoked the founding of the shelter were ultimately the same interests that shut it down, leaving hundreds of people necessitating relocation or subject to abandonment. And so, the cycle repeats itself.
In 2016, amidst the ongoing legal battle over the Peachtree-Pine building, Mayor Kasim Reed publicized plans that "called for a consolidated police, fire, and SWAT facility placed on site" of the Peachtree-Pine shelter. He introduced this proposal while simultaneously enacting the Homeless Initiative Registry, a survey to collect the names and needs of Atlanta's homeless, Quality of Life ordinances that criminalize sleeping outside, loitering, and urinating in public, and panhandling prohibitions which outlawed soliciting money 15 feet or less from a business, transportation station, among a list of other sites. These are targeted policies that sanction the livelihoods of Black people who compose a disproportionate amount of Atlanta's unhoused and housing insecure residents.
As I wrote about in my dissertation, efforts facilitated by and on behalf of Atlanta's Black low- and no-income residents were visible throughout the city, including the 2016 protests to save the Peachtree-Pine Shelter outside the building and inside the Atlanta City Council meetings, 2017 Tent City outside of Turner Field, 2018 protests focused on displacement caused by the Atlanta BeltLine, and 2019 sit-ins outside of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' office protesting the lack of affordable housing and demanding justice for residents of Peoplestown. We can now add the 2022 and 2023 protests to #StopCopCity to this list, as the relationship between city-sanctioned militarized policing and housing deprivation is increasingly critiqued—and intertwined.
Although the Atlanta Police Foundation's "public engagement" around the Cop City proposal began in the summer of 2021, the plan was in progress as early as 2017—the same year Peachtree-Pine was officially shuttered. The simultaneity of the increased criminalization of homelessness and the Peachtree-Pine closure engendered the public emergence of Cop City, and is emblematic of the cycle of state abandonment that exploits and reproduces the homeless population.
In recent decades, we have witnessed a network of nonprofits, private providers, and police agencies conspiring with local governance across the country to comprise a so-called social safety net for those in crisis. Corporate agendas are funneled through organizations publicly committed to ending homelessness through vague actions and empty promises—such as Reed's promise to refurbish buildings and build smaller shelters to house Peachtree-Pine's former residents.
The very existence of both nonprofit entities and police rely on people remaining in crisis. In order to maintain increased funding and notoriety, both systems must circumscribe a definition of "safety" that is predicated on their existence, and so both must perpetuate a cycle of abandonment and criminality. Atlanta Police Department's H.O.P.E. (Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement) Team's "primary duties… are to identify and eliminate all homeless encampments in the City of Atlanta by trying to place homeless individuals in short and long-term housing. The unit is able to offer these services by partnering with a host of agencies like Gateway, United Way, Salvation Army, and Veterans Administration, just to name a few."
In the name of "outreach," police not only physically harm people and destroy the material possessions of unhoused people during sweeps, but they also erode grassroots mutual aid efforts to sustain individual livelihoods. These sweeps are fatal, even: A recent study from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus found that 15-25 percent of deaths of the unhoused population over 10 years will stem from sweeps and bans against so-called tent cities. Nevertheless, police raids and sweeps of homeless encampments go unquestioned as city residents are conditioned to believe that the invisibility of homelessness equates with police efficacy and communal safety. Hence, the call for Cop City as an enhanced safety measure.
In 2022, the Atlanta Police Department was allotted a third of the city's $700 million budget. In the same year, Mayor Andre Dickens announced a proposal to invest an additional $6.2 million, which totaled $25 million, toward alleviating homelessness. (The city originally committed only $25 million to address homelessness when Peachtree-Pine was closed in 2017. Comparatively, Cop City is a $90 million investment.)
That same budget cycle, Atlanta Magazine reported that the city only had 29 affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income families. In the same year, there were more than 24,000 applicants on the Atlanta Housing Authority waitlist. Emphatically, evictions prevent rehousing and catapult people into cycles of poverty. The closure of Peachtree-Pine succeeded by minimal growth in shelter capacity—seemingly not enough to compensate for the capacity provided by Peachtree-Pine—leaves unhoused and housing-insecure Atlanta residents with no recourse.
If we are truly committed to ending the cycles that propagate homelessness, Cop City can never be built. We must defund the police and invest in quality housing, grow our mutual aid efforts, and hold city officials accountable to the evidence in our lived experiences and the expressed needs of the people.
Contribute to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to support the legal defense of Forest Defenders facing domestic terrorism charges and learn more about the ongoing fight to #StopCopCity and Defend the Atlanta Forest.
Out Loud on the Gate City Front
Legacy media and tech titans have been instrumental in promoting and protecting Atlanta's Cop City project. Pack City Hall is just one example of the power of alternative media and grassroots organizers mobilizing to challenge the state narrative.