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Friday, December 19, 2008

Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter could soon be shuttered

The woman approaching is stooped and sunken-eyed, with a weather-ravaged face that hints she might be much younger than she looks. She carries a frayed backpack and when she speaks, it’s in the beaten-down manner of someone accustomed to asking favors.

click to enlarge The Peachtree-Pine shelter houses hundreds of homeless men.
  • The Peachtree-Pine shelter houses hundreds of homeless men.

“Thank you, Miss Anita,” she says, as she follows her subject along the sidewalk and through the side door of the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter. “You’re always good to me, even when I stray.”

Anita Beaty assures the woman she’ll be taken care of and ushers her into a small lobby where other street people occupy chairs along the walls or gaze out windows.

“We’re the first place people can come so they don’t die on the street,” explains Beaty as she sits down for an interview a few minutes later.

As executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, Beaty has run the city’s largest shelter on the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets for more than a decade. White-haired and grandmotherly, her appearance belies her reputation as a relentless advocate for the homeless, and in conversation, she comes across as so soft-spoken and unhurried that you’d never guess this is someone whose world is unraveling.

Earlier this month, the city turned off the water at Peachtree-Pine, citing unpaid bills totaling more than $160,000. Beaty quickly persuaded a judge to issue a temporary injunction to restore service, but her agency must comply with a daunting payment schedule or the water goes back off.

While water is the most immediate of the problems facing the Task Force, it’s far from the only one. It may not even be the biggest.

Last year, the Task Force lost the bulk of its state and federal grants, a move that has so far cost the agency nearly $1 million in anticipated revenue. And while the Task Force holds the deed on its 100,000-square-foot home four blocks south of the Fox Theatre, the 1920s-era building has been mortgaged at least once – and perhaps several times – over recent years. Then there are the dozens of other expenses associated with operating an enormous homeless shelter, such as electric bills, groceries, transportation, staff salaries and so forth.

Beaty insists her agency’s not in peril – “The Task Force isn’t going out of business or reducing services or doing anything differently,” she says – but she offers little in the way of evidence to back up this claim. For an organization whose reported annual budget has been in the neighborhood of $1.3 million, it seems doubtful that private donations alone, especially with the economy in such dire straits, could close the revenue gap left by the lost grants.

It’s unknown how long the Peachtree-Pine shelter can remain open, but there are some who believe its eventual shuttering would be a boon to the surrounding Midtown neighborhood, to downtown businesses – and to the very homeless people it claims to serve.

Former Task Force supporters, city officials and even fellow homeless service providers seem to be in general agreement that the Task Force’s no-questions-asked approach to providing a sanctuary for street people is outdated and ultimately does more harm than good.

Bruce Gunter is co-founder and president of Progressive Redevelopment Inc., a Decatur-based group that develops and manages affordable housing projects, such as downtown’s Imperial Hotel and the new Hope House, around the corner from City Hall. An early advocate of the Task Force who helped the agency obtain the Peachtree-Pine building, Gunter’s support was short-lived once he reached the conclusion that Beaty was a better bomb-thrower than administrator.

“Anita is admirable in so many ways, but you can’t be a homeless advocate and manage a homeless service center,” Gunter says. “Those two jobs don’t go together because you need public officials on your side; you can’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Beaty, however, clearly relishes the role of righteous hand-biter. In two separate conversations, she cheerfully recounts a single incident she seems to view as the flash point of her agency’s ongoing conflicts with City Hall and the downtown business community. It was 1994, and then-Mayor Bill Campbell was speaking at the re-opening of Woodruff Park, which had been overhauled in preparation for the Olympics.

To protest a new law aimed at panhandlers, Beaty and other activists arrived at the event with a group of homeless men and women who shouted down the mayor and business leaders.

In attendance at the 1994 event was newly elected City Council member Debi Starnes. She now scoffs at the suggestion that community opposition to the Task Force is somehow payback for disturbing a ribbon-cutting.

“The culture of that agency and its management of that building is not one that helps people escape homelessness,” says Starnes, who retired her Council seat three years ago and now serves as Mayor Shirley Franklin’s homeless czar.

“What’s going on in that building is abysmal and shouldn’t be accepted,” she adds. “The city should be ashamed for having allowed it to go on for so long.”

The Task Force for the Homeless was created in 1981 at the behest of incoming Mayor Andrew Young after 17 homeless Atlanta men died from exposure during a cold snap. Beaty took the reins in 1985 and for the first decade or so, it served as the main referral agency connecting homeless men and women to night shelters and other local service providers. By 1995, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced $1 billion in new grants to fund coordinated homeless programs in major urban areas across the country, the Task Force was best positioned as the umbrella organization to administer the grant package. Atlanta received a healthy $12.4 million, more than many cities with larger homeless populations.

But problems began almost immediately. One by one, the grant’s sub-recipients – Cobb Family Resources, Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Metro Atlanta Furniture Bank and others – told HUD they couldn’t work with the Task Force and asked the feds to administer the funds directly. A 1998 HUD audit report found the Task Force’s management of the grant program to be a disaster zone of poor record-keeping, tardy reimbursements and lousy inter-agency communication. If the organization couldn’t account for $1.2 million in missing funds, the audit recommended, it should be forced to give the money back to HUD.

Although the Task Force didn’t end up having to repay the funds, Atlanta’s grant package was reduced to $5.3 million in 1998.

By that time, Atlanta civic leaders had decided the city needed a centralized homeless service facility where men and women could come for temporary housing and to have their needs assessed so they could be prescribed medication or assigned to treatment and training programs. Beaty, too, aimed to create a sort of “Grand Central Station” for homeless people, as she termed it — and she wanted to go it alone.

In January 1997, Beaty one-upped the city when Ednabelle Wardlaw, a Coke heiress, bought the block-long, former United Motors Service building for $1.3 million and donated it to the Task Force. The city was forced to abandon its own plans to open a one-stop-shop for the homeless until 2005, when the Franklin-launched Regional Commission on Homelessness finally opened the Gateway Homeless Service Center, in a converted city jail.

Now, with the Gateway Center coordinating a metro-wide network of shelters, drug-treatment centers, supportive housing providers and other social service groups, Starnes says Peachtree-Pine is no longer needed as a shelter of last resort. In fact, she says, its closure is necessary to making the new system work.

“They’re undercutting all the rest of our efforts,” she says, explaining that by providing a refuge where drug addicts, alcoholics the mentally ill can congregate, the shelter does little to rehabilitate its residents. “They are nurturing and contributing to the problem of homelessness in Atlanta.”

Gunter agrees that, by running a loose ship, the Task Force’s isn’t helping most of its residents.

“One of the worst things you can do to someone’s dignity is to create dependency, to tell people you don’t expect them to get their lives together,” he says. “It’s been a terrible service to homeless people.”

It’s unclear how many men stay at Peachtree-Pine on any given night. (Although women receive services at the shelter, it only houses men.) Beaty claims the building is home to a “community” of 700 to 800. City officials believe the number is lower.

Beaty concedes that some of the residents have lived there for several years, but insists the rehabilitation and training programs she provides — including GED classes, a computer lab and job referrals — are top-notch.

But the Task Force gets low marks even from fellow agencies. Robert Hunter, director of the Atlanta Union Mission’s shelter programs, says his agency no longer has any working relationship to Beaty’s.

“We used to refer people there,” he says, “but we stopped doing that because all they do is warehouse people.”

All the controversy is troubling to Bill Bolling, director of the Atlanta Food Bank and a co-founder of the Task Force.

“There’s no one who cares more for the homeless than Anita, but she’s burnt bridges with funders and other agencies,” he explains. “Trying to be a thorn in people’s side doesn’t work over the long haul and I don’t think the Task Force in recent years has been good for the movement because they’ve never progressed.”

The favored approach in dealing with homelessness has evolved greatly over the past 20 years, says Starnes. The emphasis is now on providing housing while addressing the reasons someone is on the street.

“Everybody’s reached the same conclusion,” she explains. “You can’t simply give a man a cot and three hots and expect him to reach the next step. You have to delve into addiction, mental illness, family history, etc. It’s hard work, but it’s the only thing that works.”

For her part, Beaty blames Starnes for much of her current woes.

“It’s been her mission for 14 years to kill us,” says Beaty, who also dismisses a state agency that ranked the Task Force dead last among Atlanta homeless service providers, costing the shelter nearly $1 million in federal funding. “The ranking process is totally subjective and the grants are controlled by politics.” She says the Task Force is preparing a lawsuit accusing the city of improperly interfering with its ability to secure grants and private donations.

Beaty likewise discounts critics who point to Peachtree-Pine residents as the source of much of the area’s street crime, including assaults, muggings and car break-ins. Neighbors have loudly complained that the shelter is a magnet for drug sales and related crimes.

Police Maj. Kirus Williams says one of his first decisions after becoming the Zone 5 commander this summer was to assign a patrol car to Pine Street from 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. Although several large shelters are in Zone 5, the Task Force building is the only location to receive such a high level of police resources.

“When you see 100 men hanging out in the street on a daily basis, it warrants police presence,” he says. “It’s very taxing, but I have to weigh the cost with the safety of our citizens.”

Despite her current troubles, Beaty is hopeful about the future. She describes a planned $13 million renovation for the building and is counting on the incoming Obama administration to restore the Task Force’s HUD funding.

As she ends the interview, it’s clear Beaty’s sticking to her us-against-the-world mindset: “Just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us.”

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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