Canopy is deeply disappointed in the rushed and incomplete coverage of our work with multiple community partners on behalf of the homeless community. We have appealed to WUGA to take the time to cover the complete version of the details so that the community can have a better understanding of our work. See below for an in-depth and accurate telling of our story through our partners in this project. The following letters were addressed to the producers at WUGA:
From: Brent Temple, interim-chair Athens Homeless Coalition
Re: Athens News Matters: Canopy’s Outdoor Studio Space Site of Large Homeless Encampment
I write to draw your attention to a recent story about Canopy Studio that I believe neglected important perspective and to request that you revisit the matter to clarify the record. I also offer your listeners options to get involved in serving the needs of homeless persons in Athens.
For disclosure: I have been an active member of Canopy for many years. I have enjoyed work-trade agreements there in the past but do not have any current financial stake in the studio. I’m writing to you as the chair of the local homeless coalition and I cannot speak for Canopy; but I do acknowledge deep emotional and social ties there.
I learned of the land purchase through coalition business, and rushed to the studio to find out what protections were in place for the residents of the camp and to offer the coalition’s support in developing a strategy that would prevent unnecessary suffering.
At the studio, the outreach coordinator, just finishing up a class, pulled out her computer and let me read the plan developed by Canopy’s board and management staff. The plan she showed me, and which I have watched them execute faithfully, is nothing short of a new model in Athens for compassionate, considerate, and community-minded problem solving for the very difficult issue of homeless camps.
The plan showed great consideration to the residents in offering clearly defined and ample time for residents to prepare a move. While Ms. Davis fairly reports that Canopy reached out to the city and two agencies to learn about possible supports, this does not sufficiently describe the truth. In fact, Canopy sought direct guidance from our local homeless services street outreach coordinator and an active volunteer group, both of whom have extensive relationships in that camp. That discussion led to Canopy’s refusal to begin removal of a winterized camp before Spring. They faced legal and community pressure to act more quickly but they put the health and safety of the camp residents first.
Because the camp predated their purchase of the land, Canopy faced an immediate threat of legal action for significant code violations (unlawful structures and unlawful trash accumulation) upon taking ownership of the land. Many new property owners might feel forced into an immediate and aggressive land-clearing (as was done on Lexington Road and Prince Ave within the last few years).
But Canopy, citing the ethical concerns above, successfully negotiated with the city and the railroad to allow the camp to stay in place until the end of Winter. Then they partnered with the city, the camp residents, and community volunteers to remove brush and trash from the site. I have stayed in close contact with Canopy’s board president and the street outreach workers during the pandemic. Canopy was unable to extend their plan indefinitely, but they stayed involved with the residents and the service community to allow a slow winddown of residency at the camp; allowing linkages with services to be made. The alternative most frequently used has been to call in DOT who arrive with tractors and dump trucks, unannounced (again, see Prince Ave and Lexington Road).
Canopy’s mission bears consideration. As a nonprofit circus training and performance space they focus on many wonderful things: they have a growing outreach program within our LatinX community and school system (carrying on the passions of the late artist and social activist Laura Conroy), an awe-inspiring aerial dance training program for children and adults with developmental disabilities, aerial dance for adults over 60, and a wide array of financial aid tools to open up circus training to folks (like me) who would otherwise not have been able to explore it. Housing and homelessness, however, are not within their scope. Still, they found a community-oriented, compassionate way to match their needs with the needs of the residents of the Chase St. camp.
Ms. Davis’ report presented many fair examples of what I have offered here but fell short in its tone; she presents the story, in part at least, as just another company pushing homeless people off the land. But I ask that you reconsider the story this way: a local nonprofit art studio showed the city a better way to negotiate land use with a vulnerable population. We should be asking them to publish their work.
In light of Canopy’s example, it bears asking: what would your company have done?
Please consider correcting the public record with the above in mind.
And for those in our shared city who would join us in the work, all are welcome to attend our general Homeless Coalition meetings and learn the faces and names of the quiet, determined, and dedicated professionals who serve our city’s homeless and poor people. We’re on Facebook at Athens Homeless Coalition: Continuum of Care and will happily send you the zoom link for our meetings.
In that space, your listeners will meet the folks who run Our Daily Bread, the Sparrow’s Nest, The Salvation Army, the Homeless Day Service Center, Bigger Vision, the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, Family Promise, Live Forward, ARC, the Neighborhood Leaders project, Envision Athens, the county library, The Ark, Project Safe, Mercy Clinic, The Shifa Clinic, The Backpack Project, PB&J, the Catholic Center, UGA Law School, your county government, and others whom I’m negligent to overlook. If you value the lives of homeless persons, and wish to do so with your work, then you are truly welcome at our table: come get to know us.
I’m grateful for your time and your work in our community.
I would like to offer up my own support for Canopy’s work as an individual and as a part of The Backpack Project (TBP). I stand behind the messages from Kevin and Brent and have a few things to add in addition. We at TBP have worked very closely in providing services and connections to the Chase Street Encampment, whether that be weekly meals, trash pickup, medical car, water, or other supplies. We are very familiar and close with all of the campers there. In their move, Canopy has done everything right, from months of notice to working with local organizations like us to meeting the campers in person and explaining what was going on. They had the option to — like most other businesses who have bought land on which people are living — show up on a day with bulldozers and police officers to clear people out instantly. That would be tremendously easier and simpler for Canopy. Instead, they put in the work to make sure everything was done right.
What is frustrating for me is the fact that you have published a story, whose original and current title revolves around the clearing of an encampment. The content of the story does not reflect any level of education, journalism, or investigation regarding the process of moving, the organizations involved, or any of the campers. In addition, the fact that you have focused on this issue instead of the fact that Canopy is a non-profit organization which is important to the community of Athens and many of its marginalized groups is irresponsible.
Mr. Matheny, I cannot speak to whether there are any inaccuracies in the story, but I can speak to the fact that it is incomplete. If you tell the story of the Chase Street encampment, then tell its story in its entirety. Speak to NPOs like TBP and Advantage; learn from the former campers; engage with community leaders and commissioners who have worked hard to make this transition. Our homeless community is not some victim you can use and prop as a virtue signal against some ‘big bad company.’ There clearly was a severe distance between your understanding and belief of the situation and reality. That is okay. What is not okay is the fact that you rushed out an incomplete story with zero attempt to bridge that gap.
I apologize if this message seems harsh. I am tired of individuals and organizations using our homeless community as a victim and prop in virtue signaling, when they lack any understanding or interactions with this population. Mr. Matheny, like Kevin said, your change in headline is a first step, but you cannot go back and change the content of the story you produced. Moving forward, I urge you to do better with regards to the issue of homelessness, one that runs deeper than you would expect and one that you did not even scratch the surface of here.
If WUGA wishes to continue to explore homelessness in Athens in a more accurate and representative manner, here are a few topics I would urge you to research: tenants rights, upcoming evictions, the aftermath of the Lexington Highway encampment, the lack of services for our encampments, problems with our Point in Time count, the lack of available beds, lack of affordable housing, the town-gown divide, the 1,000 homeless students in ACC, COVID and homelessness, racism and homelessness, mental health and homelessness, drug use and homelessness, health and homelessness, incarceration and homelessness. I hope that’s enough to keep you occupied, and I am more than happy to provide you with more ideas.
The Backpack Project, Inc.
To the producers of Athens News Matters @ WUGA,
I am writing about your July 10th Athens News Matters with the headline “Canopy’s Outdoor Studio Space Site of large Homeless Encampment.” I am disheartened by the reporter’s lack of professional journalism and feel you have done a disservice to individuals and experts across multiple public and non-profit organizations partnering with Canopy to assist campers on the lot we purchased for future development.
The following request came to our Executive Director, Melissa Roberts on the evening of Tuesday July 7th.
I’m a producer for WUGA and I’m looking to do a story on the recipients of the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission grants. Would someone from your organization have time to talk via Zoom either Wednesday or Thursday?
Once the interview started, all questions from Ms. Davis were about the homeless camp – an effort that has been led by a subset of Canopy Board members – not the Executive Director. Melissa asked Ms. Davis to contact me for more information and Ms. Davis responded that she didn’t have time. The unfortunate result is that you have now put out a narrative that is misleading to your listeners and makes no attempt to honor the efforts being made by a cross section of dedicated experts coaching, collaborating and guiding our steps.
A little history not covered in your story…
After a 5 year search for space to grow our facilities to support the 800+ individuals who partake in Canopy programs and performances each week, we purchased this land right next door to our current facility in November 2019. Within two weeks of ownership, the number of homeless persons on the property more than doubled as another camp nearby was shut down by a utility company with less than 48 hours notice. Within 4 weeks, we started receiving code violations for un-permitted structures on the property from Athens Clarke County, weekly complaints and concerns from local businesses and residents, and even police reports filed with the CSX Rail police in Atlanta about garbage piling up on the tracks. We immediately engaged partners from Advantage Behavioral Health, Athens Free Clinic, the Athens Homeless Coalition, The Backpack Project and other local experts for support and guidance on what to do to help the homeless individuals camping on our property. Assistants from every one of these groups became regular participants onsite, getting to know each individual’s needs, and helping us lay out a plan spanning several months, shared with the Mayor and Commissioners, to provide assistance to each individual and begin cleaning up waste that was already imposing additional health concerns. The clean-up work you may see going on now was delayed 3 months due to Covid-19 following the camp’s official closure on the first day of Spring in March. We are thankful for the partnership, the community involvement, and the care and attention offered to each individual through their resources. Any further story about Canopy or our work on this site should be more respectful of this community-wide effort. We would be happy to participate in a professionally approached story on the challenges homelessness presents to our community, the systems that enable it, and the best way we can effectively help others in need.
Homelessness is a complex problem, but it is solvable if we work together in our community. An attention grabbing headline to an incomplete story does good for no one – especially the homeless individuals who need compassionate, personalized action over attention. I understand there are special challenges you face to be a relevant news source in today’s environment. But you are a trusted news source for me and most of my friends and neighbors, and we expect more from our local NPR affiliate and a Grady graduate reporter.
Kevin M. Bates
President, Canopy Studio Board