It may be the most creative thing that’s ever happened in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. Eight members of the Open Door Community (with a little help from their friends) carried toilets into the park and stationed themselves upon them. Others of us surrounded them with placards declaring “Pee for Free With Dignity” and “Outhouses for People Without Houses.
We got a few stares from the downtown lunch crowd. Some passersby laughed. But we were there to draw attention to something that is far from a laughing matter. In 1994, the city government promised to install 25 public toilets in downtown Atlanta. In the two years since, none has appeared. And every day, more and more homeless people are being arrested and spending time in jail for public urination. As Rev. Murphy Davis of the Open Door put it, the policy is “stupid and mean-spirited.” In six months, she says, the city could have paid for public facilities instead of “flushing public funds down the toilet by locking people up.”
Such arrests aren’t new, but they are being stepped up in a concerted effort to create a “vagrant-free zone” in Atlanta during the upcoming Olympics. New ordinances seem to be as numerous these days as official Olympic sponsors and Coca-Cola souvenirs. Among the most controversial laws is one making it illegal to walk across a parking lot in which you do not have a car parked.
The effort is aided by pith-helmet-wearing, walkie-talkie-toting “goodwill ambassadors,” hired by downtown businesses to alert police to “trouble”—and by a new eight-story, $67 million jail. Homeless people who would prefer not to spend the ’96 Games behind bars are being offered a free, one-way ticket out of town. Project Homeward Bound will send any homeless person anywhere on a bus, provided they promise never to return to Atlanta.