A lawsuit filed by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless that accuses the city of Atlanta of using "improper, illegal and unethical means" in an attempt to shut down the organization's controversial Peachtree-Pine shelter will get its day in Fulton County Superior Court on Sept. 21.
The 23-page filing alleges that the city has used a multi-pronged approach since 2007 to try and shut down the shelter the largest of its kind in Atlanta, and, according to neighbors and city officials, a magnet for crime in a gentrifying corridor.
City Hall officials have damaged the organization's reputation and ability to compete for funding, the task force's lawyers claim, by delaying certification needed to apply for grants, making defamatory remarks to private donors, and cutting off water service to the shelter for unpaid bills. The lawsuit also accuses officials with Central Atlanta Progress, a civic booster group, of instigating the media to report negatively on the shelter.
The lawsuit asks the judge to stop the city from collecting on the shelter's water bill debts, defaming the task force, and refusing to issue the certification it needs to seek funding. (Here's a link to a PDF of the task force's lawsuit.)
A.J. Robinson of Central Atlanta Progress strongly denies any conspiracy between the downtown organization and City Hall to shut down the task force. In an interview with CL, Robinson claimed that other local organizations were more effective than the task force when it comes to helping people break the cycle of homelessness.
"It's not about the homeless population," Robinson said of the dispute. "It's about a very poorly managed and poorly operated operation. I wish we could influence the media to shine a light on this organization and how the people in there are not being served. There are better facilities around the community that can serve that purpose."
Robinson also pointed out that CAP gets involved in all issues that impact the community, and he claimed that CAP officials' conversations with reporters about the task force were aimed at providing journalists with information to help them write more accurate stories.
For years the task force and city have butted heads over how to tackle Atlanta's homelessness situation. In 2007, the city removed the shelter from its list of suggested donors, a move that weakened its ability to obtain funding.
Task force officials, however, say it serves homeless people who are often turned away from crowded city facilities, and point to its success stories. It says the city wants to push out Atlanta's homeless population to appease the downtown business community. (For a thorough look at the dispute between the task force and City Hall, check out Scott Henry's Dec. 24 CL story.)
On Tuesday, task force officials including executive director Anita Beaty and such supporters as Foods Not Bombs, the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger and the Atlanta Transit Riders Union rallied at City Hall to raise awareness about the lawsuit and urge the media to fairly cover the trial. More than two dozen academics, including housing experts Larry Keating of Georgia Tech and Lindsay Jones of Emory University, issued a statement in support of the task force. The academics wrote:
"...[the lawsuit] reveals how powerful economic and political interests have pursued an agenda of downtown development that sacrifices the well-being of working families, the poor, and homeless people. As concerned academics who believe that our city's future should be shaped by Dr. King's dream of a beloved community, we hope that this potentially precedent-setting lawsuit will receive the widest possible publicity."
As of Tuesday, Debi Starnes, a former Atlanta City Councilwoman who now serves as Mayor Shirley Franklin's chief adviser on homeless issues, and two employees of the city's grants management department have been deposed by the task force's attorneys. [CL and the AJC were also subpoenaed as part of the lawsuit, but exercised reporters' privilege.] Starnes referred questions to Franklin's office. The mayor and the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management did not respond to emailed questions.
(Photo by Thomas Wheatley)
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