Our Town: Atlanta

Homeless shelter’s rooftop garden provides more than food

Each Saturday, we shine a spotlight on a local neighborhood, city or community. To suggest a place for us to visit, e-mail H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or call 770- 744-3042.

Information about volunteer opportunities and donations is online at www.homelesstaskforce.org.

A garden can be a place of calm reflection, a spot to restore energy and serenity. When that garden is on a downtown rooftop in the shadow of Midtown skyscrapers, it also becomes an oasis of peace in an otherwise bustling neighborhood.

The garden of 80 raised beds atop the 4-story concrete building at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets has all of those attributes, and more. Since it rests on the roof of a homeless shelter, it provides therapy, motivation and healthy food for the more than 400 men, women and children who reside there.

It also has strengthened ties between the community and the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless that has occupied the building since 1996.

“We often get volunteers from different universities out here to haul dirt and build the beds,” said volunteer Carl Hartrampf, a former city housing commissioner who lives in Sandy Springs. “We have local church groups that help by bringing seeds and plants and helping us take care of things. Our compost bin was made by the people at Southface. And we had people help us set up a bee hive in the corner. When it’s time to harvest, we get as many guys as we can to set up a bucket brigade - that’s the only way we can get things up and down since we don’t have a working elevator.”

Community volunteers have been installing an irrigation system to catch rainwater, and plans call for solar panels to power the pumps. Last weekend, a crowd of helpers swarmed across the roof to paint a mural along the side walls. While they’re pitching in, volunteers often work alongside the shelter’s residents. One of them, Stanley Harper, became so captivated with the garden that he took classes and earned a certification as a master urban gardener.

“When I came here, I was homeless, trying to get off alcohol and drugs,” said Harper. “This garden got me out of my chair and back into life.”

The volunteer director of the Task Force, Anita Beaty, said the garden has long been a goal that is finally blossoming.

“We’ve worked really hard under challenging conditions to make this happen,” she said. “But now we have eggplant, carrots, strawberries, cabbage, broccoli, onions, collards, peas, herbs, flowers, tomatoes, okra, lettuce - even peach trees - that help us serve organic, healthy food to the vulnerable people we have here. What we don’t need, we want to give to other groups or sell at local farmers’ markets. And we also want to use the garden as a way to teach some of our residents to cook.”

The garden takes up less than half of the available roof space, so Beaty hopes that continued community support will provide more beds and produce, as well as ways to demonstrate to the public what the shelter can do.

“It’s just magical up here,” she said. “It’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in my life, and it’s created a real community.”