Built Environment Analysis: The People of the Environment
The Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, the largest in the city of Atlanta, has faced threats of closure from city officials since its inception. Mayor Kasim Reed now spearheads the crusade to terminate its utilization, and the shelter may be closed within the coming months. Despite arguments made by city officials, the closure of the Peachtree-Pine shelter poses significant threats to the social and economic well-being of the city of Atlanta.
PERSONAL INTERACTION WITH THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
I stood on the corner of Peachtree and Pine, holding my umbrella against the rain and the people in the rain.
I had found a place to park, double-checked that my car was locked, and ran to the meter. Bowed against the rain and cold, I paid the two-dollar toll with one bill and stuffed another in the machine. The paper wilted with moisture, and the meter spit the dollar out until I accepted defeat with a swipe of my debit card. Those few minutes in the rain only exacerbated my disheveled appearance; I had abandoned my tennis shoes for a pair of rubber boots that would obstruct the rain, and I trudged to the intersection of Peachtree and Pine in oversized black sweatpants tucked into brown boots.
I stood on the corner and stared down Pine Street, and the entrance to the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter. The sidewalk was lined with grown men and some women; the men seemed large even from a distance, and they leaned against the façade of the shelter with blank gazes or ambled around the trash in the street with the same vacant stares. I did not recognize the people but I remembered the mass. I would sometimes drive by on my way to campus, and this block always had the largest concentration of homeless people I had seen in the city. They were sitting under the open lids of cardboard boxes, huddled under blankets and tarps. Some would even approach my car if I stopped long enough, and I was invariably staring straight ahead.
The light at the crosswalk flashed and I made the easy decision to look for an access on Peachtree Street. I found an entrance to the shelter as an older woman departed from the building, and turned to rummage with the locks of the door. I asked if I was in the right place, and her furrowed brow and creased forehead voiced her confusion- either at my relation to the shelter, or the brown boots with black pants.
We determined that I was there to meet with Anita Beaty, in the conference room off the Pine Street entrance to the shelter. The woman offered directions, and after a moment of thought, offered to guide me to the entrance. I have never felt more genuine relief, and we turned the corner onto Pine Street and the sea of rain and people. I held my umbrella with one hand, and the woman grasped my free arm and intertwined it with hers. I held back with the tightness of anxiety and uneasiness. I might as well have been in my car; I kept my head down, and disregarded the people into invisibility, and at times we walked more in the street than on the sidewalk.
I remember checking myself: “Should I be afraid right now? Am I threatened by this environment, or am I scared of a stigma?” I still didn’t look up.
We made it to the rusted back-door of the shelter, up a staircase, and past a room where women and children sat staring at a large screen. I only barely glimpsed the faces, the gazes, the posture of these people, but I can still see through the open doorway in my mind. They were very much human. They weren’t homeless, there weren’t labels, they were mirrors of my humanity in each individual body. But there was something else there, their sameness accentuating their detachment from the outside world.
Mrs. Beaty walked into the conference room, and I stood up to shake her hand. She smiled and opened her arms, and said, “I’m going to hug you instead.”
I didn’t have to make any excuses for my wardrobe, and I didn’t need to any more.
PUBLIC INTERACTION WITH THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
The Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter is the largest in the city of Atlanta, and houses 575 men, women, and children each night. It serves as an unlimited emergency overflow shelter, and will exceed its capacity to assume more occupants in inclement weather. Peachtree-Pine is the only shelter in the City of Atlanta that takes people without admissions criteria; no identification, no screenings, no tests are required for shelter. Anita Beaty, Executive Director of the Atlanta Task Force for Homelessness, has managed the shelter for 31 years. “I do everything from unclogging a toilet to contacting the city and creating volunteer opportunities,” she laughed after I asked what a day in her life looks like. Beaty handles all the books and finances and supervises the volunteers and tenants in the shelter. However, Beaty asserts that her fundamental goal, and the role of the shelter, is to save lives. There is no contingency to her determination; not in spite of, but regardless of her age, Beaty daily serves as an advocate of the homeless community. “You see these kids and teenagers get picked up on the buses for school right outside, and they’re embarrassed and ashamed to have people know they live here. It breaks your heart, and that’s why the city is so infuriating.”
The shelter has continually faced threats of closure from the City of Atlanta, and city officials have made renewed efforts to convert the facility to a police, fire, and SWAT station. Beaty suggests that tensions between the city and homeless community began with the 1996 Olympics. The city was “complicit in the destruction” of poor neighborhoods for the cause of gentrifying downtown, the availability of public and low-income housing decreasing as more businesses materialize in the area. Beaty blames big money for the growth of poverty in the city; homelessness increases and becomes concentrated in areas like Peachtree-Pine due to the “pressure downtown business exerts by way of the city.” The mayor does the bidding of powerful money, with a primary goal of the redevelopment of the downtown area. Beaty contributes threats of closure to a blatant conspiracy by the city. She addressed the throng of people outside the Pine Street entrance, stating that “the city has created what it looks like.” No one that lines the sidewalks is allowed in the shelter, and her tenants know the consequences of joining the throng. The mass of people contributes to stigmas of crime and disease surrounding the shelter and the homeless population of Atlanta. I asked Beaty about the concentration of tuberculosis at the shelter, and she contended that “there was never a TB outbreak here.” In the past, there has been an uptick- meaning only a few- in TB cases at the shelter. However, Peachtree-Pine was not the facility with the greatest concentration of cases in the city. Beaty concludes that the statement is “completely false,” that these speculations have been overdramatized by the city to ensure the closure of the shelter. She further asserts that the city unravels any plans of development by manipulating the funds allocated to the shelter.
“The building has good energy and good bones,” said Beaty. She listed a series of plans for Peachtree-Pine, and development ideas that would benefit the community and occupants of the shelter. Beaty hopes to create spaces for permanent, affordable housing above the building, and renovate the front of the structure for retail. She would like to open a coffee shop, art studio, or thrift store where occupants of the shelter could work and develop skills necessary to obtain permanent employment. Beaty would also like to upgrade the shelter to a self-sufficient green space. She hopes to provide the resources overlooked by the city, and give “the people who have survived long enough to get here, who have untapped skills, the opportunity to develop those here.” Unlike other shelters in the area, Peachtree-Pine offers services like free TB screenings, employment opportunities, and case workers to address any legal issues the occupants may face.
I asked Beaty what she believed to be the main cause of homelessness. Her answer was simple: “Poverty. Poverty is the main source of homelessness. People say addiction and mental illness, but that all compounds itself as poverty, or the gap between the cost of housing and income.” Her ambition through the endurance of Peachtree-Pine is to redefine the circumstances of these individuals, and create opportunities for occupants beyond the shelter. “It’s all about being with people while we learn to be vulnerable with each other. It’s learning how to enjoy each other. That’s where God is,” she told me.