Laneal Barnes is a handsome kid, with a smile so bright it could ignite a bonfire. He wants to be an artist, and eagerly displays a folder of his sketches.
Put into some environments – a Buckhead home or a good, solid working-class neighborhood in south Atlanta – Barnes would be shooting for the stars.
But Barnes' life has crashed into a few walls. He's deaf. He reads lips and speaks with labored care to mold words he can't hear for people who do hear. Barnes' mother abandoned him, and he ended up homeless. For three months, he has lived and worked at the Task Force for the Homeless – generally dubbed "Peachtree and Pine" after the prime downtown intersection where the agency is housed.
"I'm finally doing something with my life," Barnes says as he hurries about doing administrative chores for the Task Force. "I'm learning something new every day. I think maybe I can become an artist now."
The Task Force's home is a four-story building that's like many of its clients: It's fallen on hard times, but there's still life, character and potential underneath a layer of grime. Peachtree and Pine provides everything from emergency shelter to transitional housing to job coaching to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Its leaders – notably Task Force chief Anita Beaty – have ambitious plans to turn the building into a community asset with a restaurant and a roof garden that provide a real road for the homeless to regain their lives. Inside, it's not swank, but it's also not depressing. "We love our bathrooms; they're so clean," Beaty boasts as she gives a tour of the tidy interior of Peachtree and Pine.
Troy Harris is another Peachtree and Pine denizen. He became homeless after his domestic life fell apart. His teen years were spent selling drugs, but he'd changed vocations as an adult and had been climbing up life's ladder. He had a good job installing hot tubs, and was trying to work through a relationship while raising a child. "I got my girlfriend and kid into an apartment, and that was good," he says. "But in quick order, I lost my job, car and home."
Now Harris is the technology manager at the homeless facility. He points to 15 nicely organized desks, each with an old but working computer, where residents search online for jobs and try to put their shattered lives back together. "When I got here, there was only one of these computers that worked," he says with pride.
There's a battle being waged at Peachtree and Pine. Put another way, there are several parallel universes that converge there. In each, different skirmishes are plotted and executed.
In one universe, the clash pits Atlanta's legions of workers and tourists against the street people. While the Task Force polices its building, it doesn't police the homeless who gather on nearby streets. Pedestrians make dashes for their offices or restaurants while dodging panhandlers who utilize tactics that range from guilt to intimidation.
Another continuum takes the street-level discordance to the level of public policy. The Task Force has had a tumultuous relationship with the city; Beaty can be both charming to her supporters, but abrasive to her critics. Before the 1996 Olympic Games, the homeless advocates sued Atlanta officials – and won – over 9,000 harassment arrests of homeless people. "The city had declared that being poor was illegal," Beaty says, noting that Atlanta recently has revived one of its most devilish tactics, giving the homeless one-way bus tickets out of town.
After the Olympics, the magnitude of the homeless problem was greatly amplified by the city's policies of tearing down housing projects and encouraging gentrification – both of which slashed into the availability of affordable housing.
The two sides eventually made up after the lawsuit. A 2004 city resolution commended the agency and noted that as many as 68,000 Atlantans experience homelessness at least one day each year, and that 63 homeless people – many of them women and children – had died on the streets that year. The city resolution pointed to the root causes: "poverty coupled with substance abuse and major mental illness [and] a lack of affordable housing."
Now, in a power play over money, the city has turned against the shelter. The charge is led by a business group, Central Atlanta Progress, City Councilman Kwanza Hall and Mayor Shirley Franklin's office.
Nothing is ever black and white, however. Under the guidance of Franklin's homelessness point person, former City Councilwoman Debi Starnes, the city plans hundreds of units of low-incoming housing at Fort McPherson when the Army leaves. While commendable, there will be no temporary shelters and services such as the Task Force provides.
The mayor's office has tried to grab control of federal HUD funds and state grants, a move designed to torpedo the Task Force. At stake is about $500,000 of the Task Force's $1.3 million annual budget. Franklin's chief of staff, Greg Pridgeon, wrote state funding officials in May and declared Peachtree and Pine was a "failed strategy." Starnes says she "believes [Beaty] is harming the homeless." And Hall opines that his District 2 constituents "are concerned Peachtree and Pine isn't a good neighbor."
The Task Force's development director, Jules Dykes, shoots back: "It's shameful what the city is doing. What's doubly challenging is that the people who speak out so loudly and strongly against what we're doing have never been here to see how much is being accomplished." Among those who haven't had time to visit is Mayor Franklin.
According to Task Force board member (and former city councilwoman) Gloria Bromell-Tinubu, Hall told her before a council committee meeting last month that Peachtree and Pine should dissolve itself, sell its building and send the homeless men out to work on farms. "Vile and vicious," Beaty says of Hall, who didn't dispute making the comment to Bromell-Tinubu.
The final combat at Peachtree and Pine is ideological. The AJC's neocon opinion commissar, Jim Wooten, last week blamed homelessness on "choices" people make – which certainly would surprise Laneal Barnes and Troy Harris. "Move them off the street," Wooten groused in a column.
Anita Beaty, noting that she is a person of deep faith, had another take. "There is a human right, and it is a right," she says, "to housing, health care and education. That's what we're all about."
See additional comments by John Sugg on the rich versus the poor at JohnSugg.com.
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