Charity in Defiance
Cops crack down on feeding the homeless without permits, but some activists remain undeterred
Alex PattonOn a frigid Sunday morning, a small group of Atlantans quietly shuffle into Downtown’s Hurt Park. It’s the closest thing many of them have to a home. Bundled in patchwork coats and breathing heavy clouds into the cold air, they stand single-file, patiently awaiting what may be the only full meal they’ll eat today. Across the street, well-to-do students and business-types with full stomachs, wallets, and shopping bags try their best to avoid eye contact.
Some people in Atlanta can ignore the hardships faced by their neighbors on the street. Others cannot. For more than 10 years, volunteers from Atlanta activist group Food Not Bombs have been serving a free vegetarian picnic in the city’s public parks every Sunday, rain or shine. Until recently, they had done so without hindrance.
Food Not Bombs picnics are not sanctioned by Fulton County, which requires a permit for gatherings of more than 75 people. But when providing food for free, the activist group does not believe they should need a permit, which can cost up to $150 for just one day of serving. And for years, they've continued to host their weekly picnics, ignoring myriad warnings from Atlanta and Georgia State University Police without conflict or consequence.
But now, suddenly, enforcement of the law is starting to get serious. On Nov. 19, GSUPD issued a citation to Food Not Bombs member Adele “Earthworm” MacLean, after she refused to stop serving an early Thanksgiving meal in Hurt Park. The citation has sparked a passionate conversation between the city of Atlanta, law enforcement, and confused citizens who ask why the law would impede Good Samaritans like MacLean.
Run entirely by volunteers and dedicated to various peaceful anti-capitalist and anti-war causes, Food Not Bombs has operated in small, loosely affiliated teams all over the world since 1980. The Atlanta chapter works under an umbrella social justice collective called the Teardown Community, which is primarily coordinated by MacLean and social activist Marlon Kautz. Their East Atlanta home serves as a de facto headquarters for Food Not Bombs, as well as Copwatch of East Atlanta, the Atlanta Anarchist Black Cross, and a donation-based “free store.” It looks exactly how one might imagine a millennial anarchist headquarters to look: spray-painted rainbow colors on the outside, with graffiti-style messages like “Build up resistance, tear down oppression” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Joeff Davis/CL FileAfter MacLean’s citation, GSU Police Chief Joe Spillane told the Intercept that the reason for the sudden crackdown of the permit laws has to do with an increase in the number of people congregating for food. More people potentially means a riskier environment for safe food service and more trash left in the parks, and GSUPD officers say they've had to clean the parks three or four times per day on recent weekends. But this explanation doesn’t satisfy the activists.
“The reality is that Atlanta has a lot of problems with poverty,” says Kautz. “Rather than addressing those problems or trying to solve them for the people who live here, the Downtown business associations have taken it upon themselves to try and push poor people out of the gentrified Downtown area.”
In particular, he’s calling out a private nonprofit organization called Central Atlanta Progress, which is responsible for many Downtown economic development projects as well as the recent closing of Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter. George Chidi, the social impact director of CAP’s Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, insists that the organization’s intent is not to “push poor people out,” but rather to get them off the streets by providing needed treatment.
Alex Patton“Nobody wants any of this to be solved by displacing homeless people into some other part of the world, but hunger isn’t the real problem here,” Chidi says. “I am concerned that many chronically homeless people on the street suffer from mental disease, from paranoid schizophrenia. The problem is you can’t involuntarily commit someone to treatment unless they show to be a danger to themselves or others, and many of them refuse long-term help even when they obviously need it.”
Chidi criticized volunteers who engage in “performative charity,” meaning they serve food, take a selfie for Instagram without cleaning up their mess, and then get to feel good about themselves for the rest of the day even though they are actually doing more harm than good. He says many residents and business owners in the Downtown area have called for CAP to put a stop to the public feedings because they see no change in homelessness, only in the cleanliness and safety of the parks.
“I’m actually annoyed that, of all the groups serving food on the street, Food Not Bombs would be the one to get a ticket,” Chidi continues. “They’ve been around for a long time, and they actually do work to build a relationship with the people they’re serving. They will clean up after themselves, too.”
The problem with some of the independent organizations offering free meals on the street, Chidi says, is that they can sometimes leave homeless people with no reason to seek help from shelters and charities that offer more than just food.
But Marshall Rancifer, an outspoken advocate for Atlanta’s homeless population, disagrees. “They’re saying that the homeless won’t go into the shelters because we’re feeding them outside the shelters, but that’s not why,” he says. “They won’t go into the shelters because a lot of them have policies in place to keep those folks stuck in shelters. For example, Peachtree-Pine was one of the only shelters that allowed [residents] to work second- and third-shift jobs.”
As founder and outreach director for the Justice for All Coalition, Rancifer advocates for and offers charitable services to homeless, marginalized, and poor people throughout Atlanta. His organization donates free meals and clothing, while also providing often-overlooked services such as HIV and hepatitis testing, contraceptive kits, and drug overdose reversals. Rancifer says that in the 18 years he’s been operating in the city, a permit has never been required of him until now.
Joeff Davis/CL File“I was homeless once myself, and I remember how hard it was for me,” he says. “I was in pretty bad shape and I made a promise to God the day I got into treatment that I would do my best to keep other people from going through what I went through to get the help that I needed. I’m not going to back down from anybody, and I’m not going to pay for a permit to feed anyone.”
Some of the cops that Rancifer and his cohorts have clashed with say they actually appreciate the persistence of activists. But, they add, generous Atlantans are tripping over one another, unaware that they’re striving for the same things. During a Dec. 13 interview on WABE, Spillane and GSU Police Sergeant Joseph Corrigan said their citizen-cop rivalries could possibly become productive, charitable partnerships. Plus, they added, this time of year, low temperatures are a more imminent threat to the homeless than starvation.
“In my almost 30 years of policing, I’ve never seen anyone in the city of Atlanta starve to death — but I have seen people freeze to death,” Spillane told WABE. “These people need more than just a meal in the park." His advice? "Partner with the city of Atlanta and their homeless outreach and try to get something done for them so we can move them from where they are to a better place.”
Corrigan is a police chaplain and sergeant of the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement team, which he says prides itself on getting to know the people inside and outside of homeless shelters, allowing police to provide much-needed help while in uniform.
“We’ve gotten so good as a city, as a people of helping, that we’re stepping over each other right now,” Corrigan told WABE. “If we could take the resources that we get in the way of food, volunteer hours, and people, and redirect them to the many groups that are here Monday through Friday providing the meals that these folks are eating [on weekdays], then we extend the resources of those pantries. They need that help, they just don’t know how to connect with the people that are driving here on the weekend.”
Alex PattonMacLean attended her court hearing on the morning of Dec. 14. Members of Food Not Bombs, Rancifer, and other activists gathered in front of the Atlanta Municipal Court to hand out free food, coffee, winter clothing, and other aid in support of their comrade. who was promptly informed that her charges had been dropped before she ever even saw a judge. “I’m glad that if anyone was going to get in trouble for this, it was me, but I think it’s more of an intimidation game than them actually wanting to follow through,” MacLean says.
Law enforcement officers like Spillane and Corrigan maintain that, although it is their job to enforce the law as they’ve been instructed, they're not trying to be the villains here. “We’re willing to work with anybody as long as they’re willing to work with us, but my main concern is the safety of my students,” Spillane tells me after MacLean’s hearing. “I appreciate the fact that so many people are passionate about helping the less fortunate and encourage them to donate time, food, clothing, and energy to a shelter or faith-based organization that provides more than just a meal on the street.”
The City of Atlanta reported earlier this year that the number of unsheltered and chronically homeless individuals as well as homeless veterans in the city has steadily declined since 2013. The reasons for that, and the best way to move forward, vary depending on who you ask, but it’s clear that no one plans to stop trying to help any time soon.
“I was willing to go to jail,” says MacLean. “Sometimes you have to do what you know is right, regardless of what the authorities are telling you to do.”