Downtown dilemma

Liberals versus the homeless?

Last week, Atlanta was named one of America’s three meanest cities to live in if you’re homeless.

Atlanta, concluded the report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “continues to treat its homeless people as criminals.”

The report has a point. Atlanta officials saw to it that the homeless were swept out of town just before the Olympics in 1996, by cracking down on quality of life laws such as urban camping. In the past seven months alone, there have been more than 400 arrests for public urination.

Instead of complying with terms of a federal settlement, the Atlanta Police Department “has become more creative in its selection of charges,” the report says. Homeless people are arrested for criminal trespass, for blocking a public way, and are even lured into unmarked police cars and driven to a parking lot where they’re arrested, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the number of homeless — about 15,000 — far exceeds the number of shelter beds. Not the city, the surrounding counties or the state have sufficiently addressed the root causes of homelessness, which homeless advocates see as poverty and a lack of affordable housing.

That Atlanta is too mean has caught at least one group by surprise. Indeed, ask some residents of downtown’s Fairlie Poplar neighborhood, and they’ll tell you the city isn’t doing enough to enforce the laws on its books.

What’s odd, though, is that these taxpayers aren’t the type to watch Bill O’Reilly or gather for dinner at the Piedmont Driving Club. Residents here, and they number about 1,000, form what is essentially a middle- to upper-class community that’s diverse racially and generationally, a group in which many members fancy themselves liberals.

They came to the city center as pioneers of sorts and found a life that was more traditionally suburban than the lives of many people in the suburbs.

“I’ve had better neighbors here than I ever had when I was living in the suburbs,” says Beth Haynes, who lives in the 123 Luckie Street building.

Fairlie Poplar is “the essence of what people are looking for in a community,” says Dorthey Hurst, also a 123 Luckie resident.

After a while, the residents, who gather every Saturday morning at the Sacred Grounds coffee shop, sound like they’re giving out testimonials for urban life. They applaud neighbors who give up their cars and can’t believe more people haven’t caught on to the phenomenon of intown living — no traffic, reasonably priced homes, amenities like MARTA, Philips Arena and Centennial Park within easy walking distance. And after 6 p.m., it’s like you have the city to yourself. The streets are tomblike in their scale and quiet.

These are a progressive people, and that might be one of the reasons why the problem of homelessness — as well as the current absence of a reasonable, humane solution to it — bothers them so much.

Cooper Holland, who lives in the Healey building, marched and was arrested during the civil rights movement. She, like many of the others active in the life of the neighborhood, values the lives of the homeless but wants the city to get tough with vagrants who violate the law.

“I feel like I’m getting all turned around,” says James Henderson, an engineer, resident of the Healey building and self-described liberal, about his political quandary. When he didn’t live among the homeless, he says he was all for boosting their rights. Now, he’s not so sure. Homelessness scares people away from the downtown, he says. It frightens away businesses and potential neighbors.

With a simple analogy, Henderson drives home his point about Fairlie Poplar. Imagine the average suburban dweller or even a homeowner in Candler Park or the West End. What if that homeowner came home to the sight of someone urinating on his house? That’s what Henderson and the people who live downtown must deal with every day, and the urinating is the nice part.

Of course, he doesn’t see throwing the homeless in jail as the answer, but at the same time, he wants the laws on the books enforced and aggressive panhandling curbed.

The confusion about what to do with downtown’s homeless was captured last year, when Shirley Franklin was campaigning for mayor. She met with the neighborhood organization and spoke of solutions to the homicide problem. Problem was, Fairlie Polar is one of the safer neighborhoods in the city. Even the woman who would be Atlanta’s next mayor, it seems, believed violence was Fairlie Poplar’s biggest problem.

If the city would invest in something as simple as public restrooms, it could alleviate some of the problem, Henderson says. The question they can’t get people interested in is: Where would the money come from to pay for them?

And that’s a problem that’s plagued the city in more ways than simply finding a place for folks to pee.

Atlanta has been making an effort to deal with its homelessness problem, says Debi Starnes, the city councilwoman representing downtown. The city has entered into joint applications with Fulton and DeKalb counties to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund projects to benefit the homeless to the tune of about $7 million annually. It also has a formalized, three-tiered program that emphasizes personal outreach. What’s more, the downtown will be the site of the city’s first of 12 Hope Houses — a 70-person residence designed to be a small, well-managed facility where homeless people can live for up to two years while they take advantage of anything from job training to mental health care.

But the city can’t do it alone, and it shouldn’t have to. Fifty to 60 percent of the people living on Atlanta’s streets were not city residents before they became homeless, Starnes says. There’s also a sizable portion of the population that is chronically mentally ill, a group that often self-medicates with alcohol or drugs.

“We will never catch up with that population without the state’s help,” Starnes says.

Anita Beaty, the head of Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, says Starnes overestimates that number and suggests that the city do more to address what she sees as the root causes of homelessness. She also points out that the $7 million used to combat homelessness in Atlanta in 2001 was $4 million less than the total allocated in 1995.

But that’s where Franklin comes in. Just as the mayor is expected to be a more prominent player on the state scene when it comes to transportation and regional politics, she has an opportunity to leverage her status to find more money to help the people on some of the city’s most commercially important and high-profile streets.

Even Beaty is hopeful. “We need the courage of a leader with the power to put in place what we know will work,” she says.

Franklin’s approach to “what will work” will go a long way to determining the future health of the downtown.

Certainly, the residents of Fairlie Poplar think the time has come.

For now, Henderson and the others will continue to live with the problem and will go to court to get the area’s homeless to obey the law. It’s their only option.

“All we can do is jump up and down,” he says. “No one has a really good solution.”

They’ll also continue to put up with the quizzical looks they get from co-workers and friends who can’t believe they live downtown and that Atlanta doesn’t end at Peachtree and 14th Street. Many have parents or loved ones afraid to visit even though it’s safer downtown than in many suburbs.

“Who’s even around to bother us?” asks Wendy Darling, a resident of the Healey Building.

“Even the criminals don’t want to come down to get hassled by the homeless,” Henderson jokes.??