The Rev. Murphy Davis, a pioneer for homeless activism in Atlanta and co-founder of the Open Door Community, died last week at the age of 72.
She and her husband, Ed Loring, began their work on behalf of the homeless in 1970s Atlanta, a time when those on the margins had few advocates–and even fewer places to sleep.
In that era leading up to the 1996 Olympics, Davis and Loring inspired a new kind of protest against Atlanta’s neglect of the poor.
Their most famous act was at the downtown Imperial Hotel in 1990. It had been a single-room-occupancy hotel before being purchased by the developer John Portman.
The former hotel had been sitting vacant when Davis and Loring planned to make a statement.
“That was a pretty powerful takeover,” said Nibs Stroupe, their longtime friend and former pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church. “They kind of scaled the building in the night.”
They draped a banner across the building that said, “House The Homeless Here.” Davis and Loring thought they’d be arrested right away.
They ended up occupying the hotel for more than two weeks, along with people who were homeless.
They were eventually arrested. But as a result of their effort, then-Mayor Maynard Jackson agreed to build low-income housing in the city.
The two also led demonstrations at the unveiling of Underground Atlanta when they felt the city misused funding for the poor. And they campaigned against the threatened closure of Grady Hospital.
Hannah Murphy Buc, their daughter, often joined them at protests as a child, and she remembers her parents negotiating which of them would get arrested and which would take her home.
She said her parents were following their Christian faith. In their eyes, the way the city treated its lowest-income residents contradicted the social gospel.
“They really believed that homelessness was something that we could fix as a culture,” Buc said.
In 1979, Davis and Loring started the city’s first church shelter. Then, in 1981, they founded Open Door, a place where homeless people could get a meal or shower on Ponce de Leon Avenue.
At Open Door, Davis and Loring lived and worked with the people they served, following the Catholic Worker House model.
The community remained on Ponce for more than three decades, while the neighborhood around it became increasingly wealthier. It finally closed in 2017.
They really believed that homelessness was something that we could fix as a culture.
Hannah Murphy Buc about her parents Murphy Davis and Ed Loring
Their daughter said the closure was partially a response to the area’s hostility toward the people Open Door aimed to reach. Davis and Loring then moved to Baltimore to be closer to Buc.
Their colleague Memphis Theological Seminary Professor Peter Gathje said Atlanta lost a voice for the homeless that it hasn’t replaced.
“The Open Door was an important organizing place,” he said. “And it’s gone.”
He said in a city like Atlanta, where the development interests pushing people who are homeless aside are so strong, it’s difficult to sustain resistance over so many years.
Still, Open Door continues to have an impact around the country. Gathje started Manna House, which caters to the homeless in Memphis, after working with Davis and Loring at Open Door.
Buc, Davis’s daughter, also said she’s encouraged by other activism, around equity and racial justice, taking place in Atlanta that aligns with her parents’ ideals.
In addition to their homeless advocacy, they were nationally known opponents of the death penalty and led ministry in prisons.
Davis died in Baltimore, among her husband and family, from cancer she’d lived with for 25 years.