Like skinny jeans, thick-framed eyeglasses, and a penchant for free-range, shade-grown coffee beans, urban gardens typically scream "hipster." To its supporters, urban farming is not a trend but a movement—and in Atlanta, some of these devotees include a demographic that is decidedly not hipster: the homeless.
Most residents of Atlanta are familiar with the city's largest homeless shelter, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. Situated along the border of the affluent downtown and midtown business districts, the shelter has a controversial and beleaguered reputation, as well as a troublesome relationship with the city. While local politics is rife with talk of gentrification and displacement, the rooftop of the shelter has quietly blossomed into an oasis of organic food and practical life experience for its residents.
With 95,000 square feet, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless is the largest shelter space in the southeastern United States. The garden of 80 colorfully painted raised beds atop the four-story concrete building at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets provides rich work experience (including urban farming certification and licensing), therapy, and fresh, healthy food for the more than 400 men, women, and children who reside there. These beds, built and maintained by residents, have already raised what reads like a Whole Foods shopping list: small crops of organic tender lettuces, collard greens, kale, chard, carrots, strawberries, radishes, squash, watermelon, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans, and more.
'Everything involves the residents, and our whole building is a certification effort. The garden functions as a classroom where we can train residents in green technology, which is important because homeless and poor people are regularly excluded from green development.'
Like employment and practical work experience, fresh and nutrient-dense foods are something homeless people typically lack access to. Every resident that works the garden is a resident volunteer at the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, and is either in training or has graduated from the nationally acclaimed Truly Living Well program, which works to bring nutritionally rich, fresh-picked produce to local residents through a community supported agriculture program (CSA).
"Everything we do is a learning experience and job training for our residents," says Anita Beaty, the organization's executive director. "Everything involves the residents, and our whole building is a certification effort. The garden functions as a classroom where we can train residents in green technology, which is important because homeless and poor people are regularly excluded from green development," she says.
Founded in 1981, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless developed concept plans for their rooftop garden in 2006 and began coming to fruition in 2009, when they were awarded a small grant from Emory University. From 2006 to 2009, the team designed and researched their concept, construction, and operations for the shelter. They also demonstrated exhibits at the South East Flower Show, where they won three awards for the Best Use of Urban Space. With these awards came recognition and support from the Board of Directors, who encouraged the shelter to continue with plans for their rooftop garden.
Longtime volunteer and board member Carl Hartrampf manages every aspect of the rooftop garden's development. "The idea is to produce enough to feed the residents something green and healthy daily," Hartrampf says. "We've been thrilled with its success so far," he continues. "Because of the elevation, we have far less trouble with parasites and insects. Up here, we get eight to ten hours of constant sun. There's nothing to block the wind. We use a rainwater irrigation system to water the garden when it doesn't rain. And now we have over 1,300 bees, which not only help the garden but will produce honey this fall," he says proudly. "Our first harvest this spring produced 55 pounds of greens." Using a staggered system of planting and a rolling harvest ensures that things are always growing at the same time other plants are ready to harvest. To further maximize its efficiency, the shelter plans to utilize trellises for vertical gardening.
Plants and people can both piss you off. Something gets knocked over by wind or by another resident or something … you can't just rip it up or knock it down. Same way you can't just hit somebody. That doesn't solve your problems. You gotta learn how to make it work, how to do your job.'
Similarly, the Task Force plans to expand it by refurbishing the roof on the older building next to the garden. This expansion will not only double the size and predicted yield of the garden, but provide residents with work experience by removing the old roof and laying the new one. "Part of the conventional way homelessness has been addressed has been to emphasize fixing people instead of the conditions that cause poverty," Beaty says. "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."
Shelter residents receive a permanent bed and storage space in exchange for participation in volunteer responsibilities, such as their Resident Volunteer Program, whose duties range from cleaning to security to intake. "We provide services, training, and certification for the residents," says Hartrampf. "The residents are involved in everything we do. They really run the organization."
The rooftop garden gives homeless residents the opportunity to learn how to tend a garden and grow their own food—skills they can use to live outside of the shelter to either obtain or sustain employment. In addition to these functional skills, they learn the emotional benefits that come from gardening—something that helps gives them purpose and helps them focus on a meaningful, sustainable task. And because the roof's surface stays warm all year, its effects are experienced year-round in the form of gardens for each season.
According to head resident gardener Anthony Brooks, the prospect of working on rooftop garden draws great interest from residents. "Everybody wants to work up here, man," he says. "It's hard work, but you get so much out of it. Fresh air, peace, quiet … Being up here, doing this work can really make you feel better. My grandmother did this kind of work, man," he continues. "I didn't appreciate it then, but I sure do now."
Fellow resident gardener Romeo Mack echoes Brooks' sentiments. "Life can get you down, man," Mack says. "Nobody wants to be homeless. Being up here, away from everything, really helps you reflect on what you did before in your life. Then, you can start applying that knowledge here in the real world. This is our real world, you know what I'm saying? At least till we get out. It's not just the food, man … Up here, you get can get away from everything. You can focus. It's real peaceful. Dealing with plants is like dealing with people. You have to have other means than fighting. Plants and people can both piss you off. Something gets knocked over by wind or by another resident or something … you can't just rip it up or knock it down. Same way you can't just hit somebody. That doesn't solve your problems. You gotta learn how to make it work, how to do your job. You learn stuff up here, you really do. And you leave a better person. This kind of work requires you to keep your head focused," Mack says earnestly.
"It's an opportunity. If you have a goal you want to meet, you can do it here," he continues. "There's patience involved in gardening. You don't just plant stuff and then get something from it. It takes time for things to grow, and then there's all the work that goes into it: watering, pruning, harvesting. Sometimes beds need to be repaired. It's a process. It's life. It's just like life."