Festival of Shelters Held at Woodruff Park

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Photographs by Jonathan Springston, Atlanta Progressive News

festivalofshelters1(APN) ATLANTA — The Open Door Community and its political arm, The Martin Luther King Campaign for Economic Justice, held the Festival of Shelters at Woodruff Park Wednesday, providing free food and beverages to the homeless, along with solidarity, advocacy, and compassion.

The Festival of Shelters has been held every year since 1989, usually at Atlanta’s Downtown Woodruff Park.

Last year, though, the event took place in front of City Hall as a way to protest the new panhandling ban ordinance.

Around 30 volunteers set up tables on eastern edge of Woodruff Park this year and served dozens of homeless Atlantans bologna sandwiches, hot soup, and cold drinks from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., on Wednesday, October 04, 2006. Atlanta Progressive News was on scene to observe the events.festivalofshelters2

“Today is the Feast of St. Francis,” Lauren Cogswell, a Presbyterian Minister involved with the Open Door, and President of the MLK Campaign, told Atlanta Progressive News. Cogswell and has been helping the homeless for the last five years.

“St. Francis was a beggar and he embraced poverty,” Cogswell said.  “He and his community survived going from community to community begging and asking for alms.”

“We live by begging. We believe that it is a holy right to beg. We believe beggars are the ambassadors of God,” she added.

The Festival of Shelters is a Jewish tradition also known as Sukkot. Along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is one of the Jewish High Holy Days.

festivalofshelters3“[This festival] calls for people to go outdoors and share food with others to remind Jews that God had brought them through the wilderness, that there had been a time when they didn’t have homes, that they relied on manna from God rather than growing crops,” Chad Hyatt, a Priest at the Mercy Community Church and a volunteer with Open Door, said.

The Open Door Community, located in a three-story apartment building with 65 rooms (14 of which are bathrooms) on Ponce de Leon Avenue, has been working to help the poor in Atlanta for 25 years.

The homeless come to Open Door to receive meals, use the bathroom, take showers, receive fresh clothing, and to receive help contacting loved ones.

Tony Sinkfield has been a volunteer with Open Door for almost three years. Before that, he was homeless and addicted to drugs. Now he is off drugs, off the streets, and is Vice President of the MLK Campaign.

“I think my brothers and sisters that I knew from the street that see me today can get hope from me,” he said. “It’s been rewarding for me to stand here today like I am.”festivalofshelters4

Woodruff Park is a contested area and has been for some time.

The Atlanta Race Riot began in 1906 in that very location.

Some activists, such as those at Open Door, argue political and business interests are making moves to essentially privatize a public park in an attempt to push homeless people out.

“They are making this park less acceptable for homeless people and more acceptable to the wealthy, who I don’t think really need this park,” Sinkfield said.

“I think it’s a new segregation where there’s certain folks who aren’t wanted Downtown,” Hyatt said.

“We believe they want to make it a playground for the rich, a fun place for some but not for all,” Heather Bargeron, Resident Scholar at Open Door, who attends seminary at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said. Bargeron has been helping the homeless for the last six years.

The ‘they’ many are referring to includes not only the business establishment and the political establishment at City Hall, but also Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), a key player in the move to privatize management of the park.

Where benches used to sit, now rest tables and chairs, paid for by CAP. These are placed out in the mid-morning and taken up in the early evening to be locked away in storage. CAP also employs the Atlanta Ambassadors that patrol the area.

“When Central Atlanta Progress has events in Woodruff Park, that’s when we notice that there’s a lot of aggression from the Police towards the homeless, getting people up from the tables or getting people up who are lying on the ground,” Bargeron said.

“This is a public park and they bring out half the [police] motorcycle brigade,” Sinkfield quipped, noting the unusually large police population that monitored the food giveaway today.

“We’re out here every Wednesday to be a presence in the park,” Sinkfield said.  “We come and share with our friends what their rights are around this issue.”

Open Door does not give high marks to Mayor Shirley Franklin when it comes to solving the homeless problem.

“I’m more cynical than sympathetic [toward Mayor Franklin],” Hyatt told APN.  “The idea of helping the homeless is essentially a smokescreen.”

“What I see is that she [Mayor Franklin] is only making the business community happy,” said Sinkfield. “She is not doing anything for the homeless. She was behind this panhandling ordinance, which is anti-homeless.”

“We’ve outlawed begging in this city, which means we’d be putting St. Francis in jail if we were to follow through with that,” Hyatt added.

The Open Door Community was founded in the Catholic Worker tradition, a movement founded in the 1930s whose basic tenants are to speak up and advocate for justice, live in solidarity with the poor, and have open arms.

“We are working to end poverty in Atlanta and end the panhandling ban,” Cogswell said of Open Door.

“We’re all just small little groups, but together, we have a strong voice,” she added, referring to the long-standing relationship Open Door and The Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless have.

“We are a community of hospitality, that’s one of our missions,” Bergeron said of Open Door.

While there are some efforts being made to alleviate the suffering of homeless people, those at Open Door believe that not nearly enough is being done.

“The real answers to homelessness have to do with living wage jobs, affordable housing,” Hyatt told APN.  “A lot of cities have already passed laws that require a better minimum wage than we see nationally.”

“[This Festival] is a reminder in this city that there is still wilderness here, still folks that don’t have homes, still folks that need food, need jobs that pay good wages,” he added.  “This Festival calls for us to get out here and do something good.”

“The Downtown business district and Central Atlanta Progress are trying to push poor folks out of town,” Sinkfield said. “This is a rich City and no one should have to live the way some of us have lived.”

The Festival of Shelters began Tuesday and continues Thursday. The Open Door and the MLK Campaign will hand out food again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News. He may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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