By LANCE CRANMER firstname.lastname@example.org
ATLANTA – The banner read, “House the Homeless Here!”
It was a simple act of civil disobedience, meant to draw attention to Atlanta’s lack of housing for the homeless, that turned into a 16-day occupation launching a decades-long movement in Georgia’s capital city.
“Atlanta was razing buildings for sports stadiums and parking lots. Funding was going for glamorous projects instead of affordable housing,” said Terry Easton, author of the new book Raising Our Voices, Breaking the Chain, which chronicles the events surrounding the Imperial Hotel occupation that began on June 18, 1990. “This group, we call them the ‘Imperial Eight,’ they were trying to bring attention to this.”
The eight activists were from a group called People for Urban Justice (PUJ). It was part of a larger organization called Open Door Community, which provided services for the poor and homeless in Atlanta.
“They were trying to bring attention to the lack of affordable housing in Atlanta,” Easton said. “At the time there were an estimated 10,000 homeless people in the city.”
The Imperial Eight broke in to the then-abandoned century-old Imperial Hotel and hung their banner from two of the building’s highest windows in an attempt to draw attention from the media and the mayor’s office.
Today, now known at National Church Residences Commons at Imperial Hotel, the building is a permanent supportive housing site that provides housing for 90 formerly homeless residents of Atlanta.
“I think it’s really wonderful that out of this act of courage and bravery, for these folks to go in and occupy the hotel and actually get something out of it, it’s wonderful,” said Easton. “I think it’s a good lesson for people that sometimes it’s worth the cost.”
To celebrate the release of Raising Our Voices, Breaking the Chain, Easton and two members of the Imperial Eight, Eduard Loring and Murphy Davis, will make an appearance at Commons at Imperial Hotel on Saturday, December 10 from noon to 2 p.m. for a book signing, stories about the occupation and a tour of the beautifully renovated facility.
“(The book) is an authentic, powerful, moving retelling of an epic time in the history of Atlanta when the issue of homelessness was taken to another level because homeless activists and advocates said, ‘enough is enough,’ and occupied the Imperial Hotel,” said Rev. Timothy McDonald III, Pastor at the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. “This occupation caused the city fathers and business community to rethink how it addressed the issue of homelessness, and, if only for a season, housing the homeless and affordable housing was on the lips of the powerful.”
By the end of the 16-day occupation nearly 300 homeless people had entered the vacant building alongside the activists, and Open Door Community had moved its morning breakfast service inside the hotel.
“Once they were all inside the activists were very clear that they wanted the homeless people to have a voice. The homeless people formed a leadership group and they called themselves the Executive Committee,” Easton said. “They’re the ones that went to the negotiating table at the end of the occupation and negotiated with the City of Atlanta.”
Mayor Maynard Jackson met with the Executive Committee and the members of PUJ to discuss what needed to be done to help the homeless in the community.
“It really forced the mayor and his staff to do something about it,” said Easton. “What PUJ wanted was 5,000 promised units of affordable housing. By the time it ended it was 3,500 that was promised. We’re still not up to that number today. It’s been a slow process, but there has been affordable housing created that has come directly from this. You don’t always get what you want, but something is better than nothing.”
Easton will have copies of his book available for purchase at the Imperial Hotel event Saturday in Atlanta. Those who wish to purchase the book elsewhere can do so for a $10 donation by contacting Easton at Terry.Easton@ung.edu.
Easton is an Associate Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. He was not a member of the Imperial Eight, but was contacted by PUJ document the history of the event.
National Church Residences currently offers more than 1,200 units of affordable senior housing and permanent supportive housing in the Atlanta metro area.