Homeless Shelter Residents in Atlanta Grow Food and Harvest Hope

"Homelessness is not a blood type; it is the experience of extreme poverty and the experience of people who are chronically excluded from housing ." - Anita Beaty, Metro Atlanta Task Force's Executive Director.

September 14, 2015
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In 2009, a Georgia-based homeless shelter started an initiative that has changed hundreds of lives. Metro Atlanta Task Force began constructing and cultivating a rooftop garden to cut costs on food and to introduce valuable life skills to their residents. The beauty behind their program is that the residents themselves were helping harvest delicious natural foods, while learning the fundamentals of gardening. Many of the residents were once in living situations like you and me, but a negative turn of events left them jobless and consequently homeless with not a lot to take pride in, and that’s how this brilliant idea came to fruition. 

Metro Atlanta Task Force has a troubled reputation with local politicians threatening expulsion and gentrification. However, when you take a peek on top of their building it’s a gardener’s paradise. It’s not “just a fad,” but has become a way of life for these residents. 

The project began in 2006 and now consists of more than 80 raised garden beds. Task Force began developing the concept of a rooftop garden from the architectural aspect to how they would certify their residents who ultimately would put in the time and hours. In 2009, they received a very small grant from Emory University which took their dreams and shaped them into a reality. During the building process, Metro Atlantic Task Force received multiple awards from the city due to their space utilization and the quality of their vegetation. These colorful beds house tomatoes, carrots, watermelon, collard greens, and more. 

When they finally opened their roof up in 2009 the residents were overjoyed. They were able to yield crops that appear on their plates every single day, plus the certification from their labors help them become hired at local greeneries propelling them towards a place of their own, once again. The first harvest yielded fifty-five pounds of veggies. Over the year’s they’ve gotten a surge of bees, which has assisted them in creating their own beehives for honey. As their success has spread there has been the talk of expansion to their neighboring building. Blueprints are being drawn up and the directors are thrilled at the impending opportunity. Not only will they have an even larger expansive of vegetation but this means that there’s a new certification project for the residents as well (Vice).

Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force, shared with Vice their success: “Everything we do is a learning experience and job training for our residents. Part of the conventional way homelessness has been addressed has been to emphasize fixing people instead of the conditions that cause poverty. Homeless people are assumed to be full of deficits. But homelessness is not a blood type; it is the experience of extreme poverty and the experience of people who are chronically excluded from housing. For the garden expansion, like all of our programs, we will use and certify resident labor. Through this, residents get the experience necessary for employment, as well as certification and practical experience.” 

More than 400 men, women, and children reside in the shelter and have all helped in the development of the garden in one way or another. Not only are they learning practical lessons, like how to properly fertilize a plant, but they are also building confidence. Homelessness is something that’s filled with shame and sadness, but here they are able to rediscover who they are and avoid being identified by what they are lacking in – a home. Gardening is a magnificent form of self-healing and therapy. 

Resident gardener, Romeon Mack, describes gardening like this: “Life can get you down. Nobody wants to be homeless. Being up here, away from everything, really helps you reflect on what you did before in life…this is our real world…at least till we get out. It’s not just the food, man… Dealing with plants is like dealing with people. You have to have other means than fighting. Plants and people both piss you off…[but] you can’t just rip it up or knock it down. Same way you can’t just hit somebody…You learn stuff up here…and you leave a better person. [Gardening], it’s a process. It’s life. It’s just like life” (Vice).

Preparing the residents for a better future is achieved in more ways than one. Although urban rooftop gardens are hip and seem to be something the more sophisticated take time to do, in this situation it’s a very real means for attaining a new lifestyle. They’re able to find themselves again and see themselves in a new and glowing light. Although homelessness and crime riddle this area of Georgia, current residents and employees are hopeful that there will gradually be a shift towards more positive outcomes. They hope the local government will realize the predicament low-income families are placed in and make moves to provide more realistic funding and opportunities for this sector of the city. Take time to read more about this great initiative and think of how you could implement something like this near you. (Real Farmacy).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Staff Writer