At the time, he was staying at the Atlanta Union Mission, the city's oldest emergency shelter, where residents are required to attend church services.
Robert, who asked that his real name not be used, still remembers bits of the shelter trivia that every homeless guy in Atlanta quickly learns: the St. Luke's Soup Kitchen feeds you for six months before asking you to move on; you need to prove you've got a job to stay at Blood-n-Fire; and Crossroads won't let you in without a picture ID.
And the Open Door Community serves the best food and doesn't rush a man through his meal. One day, Robert finally accepted an invitation to move into Open Door, the homeless shelter founded in 1981 on Ponce de Leon Avenue by Ed Loring and his wife, Murphy Davis. There, he could have a room to himself. But Robert's chief motivation was his fear that he would end up in the gutter dead, a nameless heap swaddled in fetid rags.
"I'd been living on the street for two years, getting high every day, and I was ready for another way of living," he explains.
Eight years later, Robert is still at Open Door, known on the street as "910," its address. He's managed to stay clean, a requirement for living in the community, and now speaks with the assuredness of a man who's made peace with his demons. He oversees the house kitchen and, like other Open Door members, receives $50 a month. But with food, shelter and secondhand clothes already provided, Robert says there's little he needs to buy.
"I'm never gonna be rich," he says, relaxing in the lobby, where other residents have come to read magazines, prepare for Bible study or simply take a load off. "But I'm better off here than anywhere else I've been. What you have to understand is, Open Door isn't a program; it's a way of life."
While the community's way of life has stayed much the same for more than 20 years, life just outside its front door has changed remarkably.
Open Door founders have watched as the street outside has metamorphosed from a runway for hookers and junkies into a commercial strip boasting gourmet grocery stores and clusters of $300,000 condominiums. The hut village that once stood in the shadow of the Carter Center is long gone. The Sears warehouse that now serves as Atlanta police headquarters is the object of a developer bidding war. Even the Majestic, the diner that time forgot, is the victim of a wrongheaded renovation.
Now, slackers eating pizza on the patio of Fellini's can glance across the street to see several sets of hungry eyes staring back. Drivers on their way to Whole Foods or Borders pass by a group of men in line for a shower. Each year, as more grime on Ponce is replaced with polish, the Open Door Community becomes more of an anachronism.
But as much as the Open Door Community looks out of place on Ponce, it is even more out of place in the city's grand scheme for the homeless. Bold plans to address the homeless problem have come and gone with depressing regularity in Atlanta, but Mayor Shirley Franklin's efforts have been, for a politician, surprisingly persistent and concerted. For the past year, her blue-ribbon Commission on Homelessness has worked behind the scenes on her crusade to help Atlanta's homeless, which are estimated to number from 6,000 to as many as 12,000, depending on the season and the state of the economy.
The 16-member panel, which is heavy on bankers, attorneys, college presidents and other pillars of the community, has been busy raising funds, planning construction and renovations projects, and garnering the support of area shelters and other service providers.
Given his outspokenness, it's perhaps no surprise that Loring, who once carried a commode into City Hall to protest the city's unwillingness to install public toilets downtown, hasn't been invited aboard the mayor's bandwagon. In some ways, he's an outsider not unlike the homeless folks with whom he identifies, a misfit among those willing to play by the rules and get with the program.
While the Open Door has long been one of the loudest voices calling for tolerance and compassion, can an organization built on a foundation of resistance, protest and uncompromising idealism still have relevance in Franklin's vision for Atlanta's least fortunate?
In early January, Franklin delivered her annual State of the City address to local business leaders gathered in the CNN Center ballroom. Almost from the start, it was clear that she had gone off-script. She spoke about her father, a lawyer whose years-long struggle with alcoholism had left him disbarred and often sleeping in the streets of Philadelphia, where Franklin grew up. Eventually, Eugene Clarke entered Alcoholics Anonymous, put his life back together and became a judge.
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