Atlanta, we have a housing problem. It’s time more of us cared
By Guest Columnists JEFF SMYTHE and RAPHAEL HOLLOWAY, CEOs, respectively, of HOPE Atlanta and Gateway Center
For too long, we’ve turned a blind eye to Atlanta’s homelessness and housing issues. Could the pandemic and racial justice movement finally be catalysts for real change?
Every so often, there’s an event that rocks us to the core and reminds us of our shared humanity. After Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta threw open its doors to evacuees, providing shelter and aid. 2014’s “Snowmageddon” saw us welcoming stranded travelers into homes and businesses, or passing out water bottles to motorists.
Unfortunately, here’s what usually happens next: As things return to normal, that shared passion dissipates while long-standing issues remain.
Although we work with people experiencing homelessness daily, it’s profoundly disturbing how long homelessness has been accepted as “normal.” HOPE Atlanta’s outreach team encounters unsheltered individuals and families everywhere – under the overpass, at the airport, at traffic stops, on MARTA trains, sleeping in cars. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there are countless more people in extremely unstable housing situations, sheltering in motels or couch surfing across metro Atlanta.
We’ve collectively turned a blind eye to something that should be a huge red flag of an unhealthy and unjust society. We need to end this epidemic of indifference and build a community of “we” instead of “me.”
If there’s a single silver lining to this heartbreaking and challenging year, it’s that we’re seeing signs of that happening.
Just look at the many people and organizations taking a formal stand against racism for the first time. By showing up and speaking out, people of all ethnicities and walks of life are acknowledging that racism and inequality are all of our concern. If we’re going to truly build a more equitable society, housing needs to be a concern we share as well.
The fact is: Atlanta has an affordable housing problem. Rent and housing prices have long outpaced wage growth, forcing residents to spend larger and larger chunks of their income on housing (and forcing many out of the market altogether).
It’s a complex problem. We don’t pin the blame on any one factor or pretend to have all the answers. What we will do is challenge you, dear reader, to care.
If you acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, please also acknowledge the connection between housing and livelihood – where one’s ZIP code plays a larger role in life expectancy than genetics.
If you fly the American flag, consider that our veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans.
If you praise “essential workers” on social media, remember that among them are the people who bag your groceries, serve your food, and care for your children at daycare. Even with more than one job, many can scarcely afford their rent.
If you’re complacent in your ability to easily pay your mortgage, try to remember a time when you were young and just starting out. The average entry level salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000 in Atlanta, and the average monthly rent around $1,100. Even with a college education and a full-time job, one must spend 30% of monthly income to cover a modest apartment. Once you factor in taxes, student loan debt, utilities, childcare and other expenses, there’s little room for savings or upward mobility.
And if you shrug off homelessness as the result of laziness or personal failings, talk to someone like Rick. Rick had worked in a warehouse for 10 years before a car accident turned his life upside down. Unable to perform physical labor, he resorted to a job in fast food where his hourly wage was cut in half. He lost his home in Fayetteville and, even though he was working hard, he lived at the Gateway Center shelter for eight months because there was no affordable housing available.
You would hear many more stories like his if you listen.
Now, we’re at a crossroads with an important choice to make: Return to “business as usual,” even when it’s decidedly unusual for a developed country to deny access to housing to so many of its residents; or, seize on our collective energy and empathy to build a foundation for lasting change.
We challenge you to harness that energy, even while some of our normal activities are on hold. Participate in a virtual event to learn more about the issue. Use your own personal platform to raise awareness. Donate to a local advocacy group or homeless shelter. Vote.
As everyday life returns to its former pace, don’t forget to stop and look around. Remember your marginalized neighbors. Strike up a conversation. Volunteer.
Because in the “city too busy to hate,” we simply can’t be too busy to care.\
Notes to readers:
- Jeff Smythe is the CEO of HOPE Atlanta (formerly Travelers Aid of Metropolitan Atlanta), a 120-year-old nonprofit organization that provides individualized housing support and advocacy for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
- Raphael Holloway is the CEO of Gateway Center, an Atlanta nonprofit that serves as a homeless service center providing short-term residential housing and additional supportive services to aid people experiencing homelessness toward self-sufficiency and becoming stably housed.