Our research team, Donald C. Reitzes, Timothy J. Crimmins, Johanna H. Boers, and Josey Parker, is interested in investigating meanings and behaviors of precariously housed men and women who regularly occupy a centrally-located downtown Atlanta public park. A content analysis of newspaper articles about the park over a thirteen year period, and a year-long series of participant observations provide the data for our exploration of the park and the homeless. Three findings emerged.
First, we found an interested and unanticipated response and relationship between the regular homeless users of the park and other park stakeholders. Safety is an important concern for homeless women and men, and the regular policing of the park was one of the positive features that attracted and maintained the presence of homeless people in the park. Further, homeless who regularly used the park appreciated food that was distributed by homeless advocates. However, they did not feel that the advocates or their organizations represented their interests or concerns. There was not strong identification with the homeless advocates, nor recognition of them as their leaders. Homeless advocates were perceived as pursuing their own goals, and an agenda that happened to be benefit the downtown homeless.
Second, our data revealed that the homeless had a variety of behavioral responses to when their presence or behaviors were contested in Woodruff Park. When tables or areas were blocked off, they often moved to another park a few blocks away or to other public spaces in downtown Atlanta. They temporarily exited the park; and some exited for longer periods of time. Several homeless men and women sensed that in the near future their presence would no longer be tolerated in the Park. Others adapted and/or persisted. The emerging norm was for the homeless in the park to limit panhandling and ostentatious displays of public drinking or drug use. They congregated in unoccupied parts of the park, and often were physically separated and segregated from other occupants of the park. The resulting accommodation was that while they were less visible and challenging to others, the park remained a place where the homeless could reliably assemble.
Finally, our participant observer reported that she never heard Woodruff Park referred to as home territory by the homeless, or a place that they invested with strong, positive affect. The park was a place that served the instrumental needs of the downtown homeless to “hangout” during the day, and to meet friends and maintain social network ties. When asked what they would do if the park was not available to them, informants responded that they would move on to another, smaller downtown park, nearby public plazas or mall, or to adjacent spaces. Woodruff Park was a convenient place but not “home,” not a place they invested with strong affect or sentiment.