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These efforts may not seem like much given the size of the city of Metro Atlanta's homeless population is estimated this year at nearly 20,000 — more than 6,000 on any given day, 4,000-5,000 of whom are downtown. But the Shrine is just one of the service organizations that fall loosely under the umbrella of the Regional Commission on Homelessness (run by United Way). One of those is Peachtree-Pine. It houses around 10 percent of the population, about 600, every day. That's a lot of intimidating ambassadors for the city.
I ask if the homeless ring the streets around the Capitol because the church seems safe. "That's part of it," he says. "When it turns cold, they have to take extra precautions. Their blankets and coats get stolen, and sometimes even their shoes are cut off their feet while they sleep." We pass at least two families with children who slept outside the night before.
We arrive at the Gateway Center. Housed in a former jail, it defines its mission as "providing the support and framework people need to achieve self-sufficiency." It offers a roadmap to such services. If you have nowhere to turn, you check in here, get some clothes, shower, brush your teeth, and then you're guided to the best help available. Gateway deals with more than 70 organizations that offer everything from education to drug treatment to job training. The night before, it housed more than 300 people.
Now it's back to Central OAC, where we discuss how downtown homelessness and redevelopment relate to one another. There is a real effort underway by many — service providers, arts groups, entrepreneurs, even the city itself — to seed growth downtown. They realize that a strong core is vital for Atlanta. But with so many homeless clustered downtown, it becomes a roadblock to development.
"A lot of folks suggest spreading out the areas of assistance and care across the region," Spears says. "But you see how much red tape there is. If you don't have an ID, for example, you can't do anything. Depending on the state where you were born, it might take months. To get to these different agencies with no ID, and therefore no job, you have to walk. So all of us being centrally located is crucial. There's no easy solution."
Later that evening, I walk through Five Points with a coterie from Central Atlanta Progress, the nonprofit that works through its public-private partnership to create a more livable downtown district. They give me the broader picture of how far Atlanta's downtown has come since the '96 Olympics, and what it could be in this decade: transit solutions, retail and residential ideas that offer the density needed to bring about sustainable vitality. But they know there are two problems in convincing people to live downtown: the public school system and public safety. The latter is bound with the homeless issue.
"It's a blessing and a curse," says A.J. Robinson, president of CAP. "Our reaction is a blessing because downtown's response to dealing with the homeless issue, in most cases, shows that we care about our fellow man. It's a curse because no one else is really doing it regularly, and so there is an overabundance of homelessness downtown. It does feel like we're swimming upstream sometimes."
All of downtown's stakeholders feel that way. Although the homeless population in Atlanta has remained fairly steady the past few years, the weariness with the issue is growing. "A lot of the NPUs (Neighborhood Planning Units, which advise the City Council) in the core of Atlanta have become worn out," says Stan Dawson, executive director of Crossroads Community Ministries, which last year provided (among many other things) more than 3,000 IDs to homeless in need. "They want the problem to go away. They don't want people defecating in their backyard. So there is a great divide between NPUs and service providers. With most of the service providers, we would love to work on the issues. But that doesn't get much ink."
What gets ink is what one service provider calls "the ones who suck the air out of the room" — the shelter at Peachtree-Pine. He describes what others have long said are its problems. Many of its guests don't abide by the rules of other agencies: no drinking or drugs, no panhandling, no fighting, a desire to transition into stability. "The people who run Peachtree-Pine have their hearts in the right place," says one person who knows the shelter well, "but [they] ask for no accountability."
When I finally included Peachtree-Pine in my downtown algebra, everything came together, beautiful-mind style. What I saw clustered around the shelter, the drug use, fights and fearlessness, scared the hell out of me. That's why most people will do what I did: make a snap judgment. Decide Atlanta is too rough. Move somewhere else. And that's why Peachtree-Pine needs to go.
But the shelter won't be gone by this weekend. I chose the Luckie Marietta District for football viewing. It's walkable. It's diverse. It's downtown. And we won't have to walk toward the intersection of Peachtree and Pine.
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