Cover Story: Down and out on Ponce

Shirley Franklin wants to solve the homeless problem. Where does that leave Ed Loring’s Open Door Community?

Eight years ago, Robert was in desperate shape. He was out of work, a drug addict and homeless, shuffling in line every morning for a free breakfast at a downtown church. And, at 41, he’d just suffered a stroke.

At the time, he was staying at the Atlanta Union Mission, the city’s oldest emergency shelter, where residents are required to attend church services.

Robert, who asked that his real name not be used, still remembers bits of the shelter trivia that every homeless guy in Atlanta quickly learns: the St. Luke’s Soup Kitchen feeds you for six months before asking you to move on; you need to prove you’ve got a job to stay at Blood-n-Fire; and Crossroads won’t let you in without a picture ID.

And the Open Door Community serves the best food and doesn’t rush a man through his meal. One day, Robert finally accepted an invitation to move into Open Door, the homeless shelter founded in 1981 on Ponce de Leon Avenue by Ed Loring and his wife, Murphy Davis. There, he could have a room to himself. But Robert’s chief motivation was his fear that he would end up in the gutter dead, a nameless heap swaddled in fetid rags.

“I’d been living on the street for two years, getting high every day, and I was ready for another way of living,” he explains.

Eight years later, Robert is still at Open Door, known on the street as “910,” its address. He’s managed to stay clean, a requirement for living in the community, and now speaks with the assuredness of a man who’s made peace with his demons. He oversees the house kitchen and, like other Open Door members, receives $50 a month. But with food, shelter and secondhand clothes already provided, Robert says there’s little he needs to buy.

“I’m never gonna be rich,” he says, relaxing in the lobby, where other residents have come to read magazines, prepare for Bible study or simply take a load off. “But I’m better off here than anywhere else I’ve been. What you have to understand is, Open Door isn’t a program; it’s a way of life.”

While the community’s way of life has stayed much the same for more than 20 years, life just outside its front door has changed remarkably.

Open Door founders have watched as the street outside has metamorphosed from a runway for hookers and junkies into a commercial strip boasting gourmet grocery stores and clusters of $300,000 condominiums. The hut village that once stood in the shadow of the Carter Center is long gone. The Sears warehouse that now serves as Atlanta police headquarters is the object of a developer bidding war. Even the Majestic, the diner that time forgot, is the victim of a wrongheaded renovation.

Now, slackers eating pizza on the patio of Fellini’s can glance across the street to see several sets of hungry eyes staring back. Drivers on their way to Whole Foods or Borders pass by a group of men in line for a shower. Each year, as more grime on Ponce is replaced with polish, the Open Door Community becomes more of an anachronism.

But as much as the Open Door Community looks out of place on Ponce, it is even more out of place in the city’s grand scheme for the homeless. Bold plans to address the homeless problem have come and gone with depressing regularity in Atlanta, but Mayor Shirley Franklin’s efforts have been, for a politician, surprisingly persistent and concerted. For the past year, her blue-ribbon Commission on Homelessness has worked behind the scenes on her crusade to help Atlanta’s homeless, which are estimated to number from 6,000 to as many as 12,000, depending on the season and the state of the economy.

The 16-member panel, which is heavy on bankers, attorneys, college presidents and other pillars of the community, has been busy raising funds, planning construction and renovations projects, and garnering the support of area shelters and other service providers.

Given his outspokenness, it’s perhaps no surprise that Loring, who once carried a commode into City Hall to protest the city’s unwillingness to install public toilets downtown, hasn’t been invited aboard the mayor’s bandwagon. In some ways, he’s an outsider not unlike the homeless folks with whom he identifies, a misfit among those willing to play by the rules and get with the program.

While the Open Door has long been one of the loudest voices calling for tolerance and compassion, can an organization built on a foundation of resistance, protest and uncompromising idealism still have relevance in Franklin’s vision for Atlanta’s least fortunate?

In early January, Franklin delivered her annual State of the City address to local business leaders gathered in the CNN Center ballroom. Almost from the start, it was clear that she had gone off-script. She spoke about her father, a lawyer whose years-long struggle with alcoholism had left him disbarred and often sleeping in the streets of Philadelphia, where Franklin grew up. Eventually, Eugene Clarke entered Alcoholics Anonymous, put his life back together and became a judge.

“My challenge to you is that, as we seek to be that city on a hill, a city of hope, we need to be sure that the least of these have the same opportunity that the rest of us have,” she said to a wave of applause.

But the mayor’s charitable words come at a time of a perceptible uptick in animosity toward the homeless, from downtown residents’ complaints over panhandling to calls for the city to sweep the bums and crackheads off the streets; from heavy-handed police enforcement of the city’s “quality of life” laws to AJC columnist Colin Campbell’s near-weekly calls for the mayor to “clean up downtown.”

To Loring, this kind of civic schizophrenia is no surprise. “In our consumerist, capitalist society, there’s no room for the poor.”

Now 63, with penetrating eyes and a short, graying beard that suggests an English lit professor, Loring sees himself as a holdover from an era before American Christianity was co-opted by what he calls the “gospel of prosperity” — the school of neo-religious thought that

believes God helps those who drive Jaguars, own investment property and have friends in high places.

“Most of the people in mainline churches believe that being a good Christian means being a good citizen,” he says. “Obey the law, don’t make waves, save a few souls and you won’t go to hell. It’s crap, it’s bullshit, it’s heresy.”

Leaning back in his chair, Loring is off his feet for first time this busy Tuesday. It’s a few ticks past 9 a.m. and he and the rest of the Open Door Community have just finished serving 120 homeless men and women a hot breakfast consisting of grits, toast, two hard-boiled eggs and a pair of sausage patties. The tables have been cleared and the men outside asked to help clean the yard; only now are Open Door residents and volunteers sitting down to eat.

But first, Loring has a few matters to discuss with the group in typically direct style. There are now only a handful of days to prepare for the biggest meal of the year, the after-Christmas Day dinner, when Open Door hosts up to 500 homeless folk — or, as community residents say, “our friends in the street.”

Despite the size of the event, it’s one of the few occasions when the house receives so many offers of help that it’s forced to turn away volunteers, Loring says.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two days of the year in Georgia when there are actually more Christians than turkeys,” he says dryly.

During the night, one of the house leaders was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room with abdominal pains that may require surgery. More bad news: A few blocks away, a shanty occupied by three familiar homeless men was set on fire, and two of the men are in Grady’s burn ward.

Loring wraps up the meeting with a short prayer in a clear voice: “Heavenly Father, we hope all is well in heaven. It is not here on Earth.”

Belying its initial appearance as an aging 1930s apartment building, inside the Open Door is tidy and welcoming. The white, drop-panel ceiling in the dining room looks recently installed, and the commercial appliances in the kitchen appear as up-to-date as one might find in a school cafeteria.

With its long central hallways lined with snapshots from group retreats and holiday gatherings, and a small lobby designed in early waiting room fashion, Open Door feels like nothing so much as a youth hostel, minus the youth.

And sometimes it feels just as transitory, says Dick Rustay, a 70-ish Presbyterian minister-turned-social worker who moved to Atlanta in 1989 to join the community along with his wife, Gladys.

Over the years, he says, Open Door has played host to hundreds of volunteers from across the country and as far away as Australia, mostly drawn by the ministry’s reputation within Christian circles. It’s also taken in similar numbers of folks from the street. Some have stayed only until their first tumble off the wagon, others have remained for years. A few have even spent their final days there.

Now, however, membership is at a particularly low ebb, Rustay says, mostly because of the declining number of volunteers who are able to take six months or a year out of their lives to spend at the Open Door. Because of the way college loans are structured, few recent graduates can make that kind of commitment.

Although it strives to be egalitarian, the community still has a hierarchy consisting of partners: permanent members, such as Loring, his wife, the Rustays and several former homeless men, including Robert; resident volunteers; and, finally, residents who’ve been invited in off the street.

As in any commune, nearly everything is shared among members: money, food, cars, telephones, chores — and in a hardcore show of solidarity, risk. “Nobody here has life insurance or health insurance,” Rustay says, smiling. “Some people say we’re crazy.”

When Loring and Davis met in the early ’70s, Loring was an ordained minister teaching church history at Decatur’s Columbia Theological Seminary, where he found that his radical, anti-establishment politics weren’t a good fit with the school administration.

Raised as a Baptist, he’d turned to the more progressive Presbyterian Church while taking part in the Civil Rights movement. At the time, he later would tell an interviewer, he considered himself to be “anti-racism, anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-North America, with commitment to a liberal Jesus.”

Church leaders sent Loring in 1975 to be pastor of the woebegone Clifton Presbyterian Church in the decaying Lake Claire neighborhood, a job no one else wanted. But it wouldn’t be long before he and Davis had shaken up the sleepy congregation.

After months of planning, the couple opened Atlanta’s first church-based homeless shelter out of Clifton in late 1979, a time when city leaders seemed to be taking the first tentative steps toward admitting that homelessness was a local problem.

Or, as Loring recalls with bitterness: “We had a big ice storm around then that killed a bunch of street people. It was all over the news, so Mayor Andy Young was no longer able to join with Central Atlanta Progress to deny that homelessness existed in Atlanta.”

The following summer, Loring, Davis and another couple went looking for a larger facility that would allow them to serve more people. The Women’s Union Mission, which was moving out of 910 Ponce de Leon Ave., liked their plans and sold for $150,000 what would become the group’s beachhead in the war on poverty.

In January 1982, the Open Door Community served its first free breakfast on Ponce. Within a year, it was feeding the homeless every day of the year out of Butler Street Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In the meantime, three major downtown churches — Central Presbyterian, Trinity United Methodist and the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — had also coordinated to open a shelter, soup kitchen and homeless services.

In the beginning, the Open Door Community’s neighbors were skeptical of this in-thy-face, radical Christian commune that had appointed itself as the city’s conscience regarding the homeless and poor. The shelter’s early feuds with the nearby Lake Chiropractic Clinic and the law firm next door were well documented.

At one point, the firm offered to make a healthy donation if Loring would agree to have folks line up for meals at the rear of the building. Citing the long history in the South of African-Americans being told to use the back door, he refused.

Later, neighbors offered to plant hedges near the sidewalk. Back then, the front yard was mostly bare dirt, and the men who lined up at dawn for breakfast would turn their faces away from the street and the gaze of morning commuters headed downtown.

“The neighborhood wanted to make the homeless less visible,” Loring says. “But after talking to some of our friends who wanted the privacy, I decided that it was a good idea.”

These days, the community seems to have made peace with its neighbors. A couple of years ago, a partner at the law firm next door sent over an apology and a $1,000 check, Rustay says.

Firm partner Marcus Davis says he donates $1,000 each year to Open Door and considers Loring a friend.

“I’m totally in favor of Open Door,” he says. “They help a lot of poor people and if I were in that situation, I hope someone like Ed or Murphy would be there to help me.”

Michelle Wing, sales manager of the brand-new Carlton condominiums at the intersection of Ponce and Freedom Parkway, says suburbanites are snatching up units at a furious pace, but so far no one has complained or even asked about the homeless shelter less than a block away.

“I have the impression it’s not going anywhere,” she says. “It’s just one of those things around here you have to get used to.”

Not all the neighbors are so supportive. Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, director of the 3-year-old Chabad Intown two doors down from the shelter, says he hopes Open Door moves on soon.

“It’s a negative for the neighborhood because it encourages people to stay in the area,” he says. “When you just feed someone, you don’t help them, you enable them to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Truth is, the Open Door Community isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The building is half-owned by Open Door and half by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, whose churches pass the plate to contribute about 60 percent of the community’s annual operating expenses of $350,000. The balance of its support comes from individual donors, who not long ago helped fund a capital campaign that overhauled the building.

A few years back, a real estate speculator offered more than $1 million for the Open Door property, but the community wasn’t interested, Rustay says. “We’ve lived here long enough to see things radically change around us,” he says. “You can feel it closing in. There are fewer places for the homeless to go. They can’t hang out at the Kroger anymore since it remodeled. But we don’t want to hide this problem away. This is where we think God has called us.”

Still, Loring seems braced for an inevitable culture clash, as the once marginal Poncey-Highland area becomes increasingly yuppiefied. When that day comes, Open Door won’t be any more willing to compromise its mission than it was in the past.

Where Ed Loring has made a career out of rabble-rousing, Horace Sibley is the picture of diplomacy. Sibley heads Mayor Franklin’s Commission on Homelessness, an initiative he believes augurs a “sea change” in addressing the homeless problem in Atlanta.

In a typical administration, when the commission handed in its study last spring, hands would have been shaken, backs slapped and that would have been that. But Franklin instead asked her hand-picked movers and shakers to stay on and help implement their recommendations. The result is a historic confluence of effort and resources by city officials, community leaders and the business community.

All in all, the plan to which Franklin alluded in her speech is a wildly ambitious public/private undertaking whose stated goal is nothing less than the eradication of chronic homelessness in Atlanta within the next decade.

“Shirley Franklin is the first mayor since I’ve been here who wanted to do something like this,” says Sibley, a retired partner of King & Spalding. “I think the stars are aligned for this effort.”

Sibley is no stranger to ambitious projects. He was the first member of the business community tapped by Billy Payne to help organize the 1996 Olympic Games. And he likewise has devoted himself full time to this goal — becoming acquainted with service providers, visiting dozens of shelters, talking to perhaps hundreds of homeless men and women, and picking the brains of longtime homeless advocates.

Studies show that a hardcore 10 percent of the homeless population uses half of all the available resources. If the mayor’s program can reach those people and get them off the street — into drug-treatment programs or assisted-living homes funded with private money — then it can focus on providing timely help to the people who end up homeless because of a run of bad luck, Sibley says.

If the mayor’s plan is carried off, he says, in another decade, “You’ll have to search very hard to find someone who’s been in shelters or on the street for a year.”

In the meantime, however, the word on the street is that the police are making it tough to be homeless in Atlanta.

“I flinch every time I see a cop now,” says Richard Two Clouds, who says he recently was arrested under the city’s prohibition against “urban camping” — even though he was staying in a hotel room.

A 58-year-old Iroquois who has lived in Atlanta off and on since the mid-’60s, Richard says he was letting some friends sleep in his lean-to, located in a vacant lot behind an intown convenience store, while he spent the night in a nearby hotel. When police came to roust the campers Friday morning, his friends explained that Richard had let them stay there.

So the cops showed up at his hotel room and hauled him off to jail, he says, where he had to spend the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend before a judge threw his case out the following Tuesday. While in court, he saw another homeless friend who was charged with trespassing for walking across an abandoned train trestle.

Richard says he was arrested three times last year, once for selling artwork in Little Five Points without a vendor’s license. But he says he’s displayed his work — scraps of wood decorated with Native American sayings — for years, always accompanied by a sign asking only donations.

“The cops are very apologetic when they arrest you,” he says, “but they all say they’re getting pressure from above to go after bums.”

Mike, who has lived under the Washington Street bridge downtown for the past two years, says he was recently busted for the offense of jaywalking while homeless — the citation called it “impeding traffic.”

Atlanta police are in the midst of a major crackdown on the down-and-out, he believes, and will use seemingly any excuse to haul them off to jail.

“I know it’s wrong to be up under this bridge, but I’m not breaking any laws,” says Mike, 48, who often works odd jobs at the Georgia World Congress Center so he can buy food.

“Shirley Franklin is not the problem,” he says, and then offers a surprisingly objective analysis. “The lady is doing a good job and I believe she cares, but people moving into the city don’t want to see bums walking around.”

Across the street from the bridge where Mike lives, bulldozers have broken ground on one of the first installments of the mayor’s plan. Called Hope House, the transitional shelter next door to Trinity United Methodist Church will provide rooms for up to 70 men while they get back on their feet.

A few blocks away, the old Atlanta jail is being readied for its next incarnation as the so-called “24/7 Center,” a four-story emergency shelter designed to serve as a gateway into a revamped network of homeless shelters, clinics and services for the homeless. Sibley says the commission is in the final stages of locking down ongoing funding for the center, which will have floors devoted to mental health treatment, addiction treatment, housing for veterans and even training for restaurant jobs.

Other projects include family shelters, rent assistance and permanent housing for the disabled and mentally ill, modeled on the successful, privately operated O’Hern House off Edgewood Avenue. Linking all of these elements, as well as the city’s nearly 120 existing homeless support agencies, is Pathways, a computer database designed to provide records on homeless individuals throughout the city so they can receive what social workers call a “continuum of care.”

“People are now in a mood to move forward and make real progress, not sit around and debate the same old issues,” says City Councilwoman Debi Starnes, a social-service psychologist who serves on the commission. “If you’re not willing to take a holistic view toward solving the problem, then you’re going to be marginalizing yourself.”

Yet Ed Loring would contend that his outlook is very holistic — which is why he’s unable to buy into the mayor’s plan. “You cannot trust social services that work within a system that cannot pay a minimum wage that’s a living wage,” he says. “The problem with capitalism is that it needs poverty to work,” he continues. “Why in the midst of abundance is there hunger? The roots of poverty are wealth. That’s what’s enabling homelessness.”

So while Loring may not be the best candidate for a seat on the commission, Sibley recognizes that the city’s readiness to deal with the problem of homelessness has been spurred by such iconoclastic organizations as the Open Door Community.

“Why try to change Ed’s skepticism?” Sibley asks. “That’s part of the source of the energy that’s driving all this.

“There’s just as much need for Ed Loring — even though his approach is different than some — to inspire passion in people,” he says. “No one approach is going to reach everyone.”

In the early years of the Open Door Community, Loring’s activism was relentless. He picketed downtown hotels for giving lobby loiterers the bum’s rush, chided DeKalb County for trimming support to Grady Memorial Hospital and used bullhorns to shout down Andy Young at the opening of Underground Atlanta, which he attacked as a waste of city resources.

His most audacious bit of civil disobedience came when — armed with hacksaws and bolt cutters — Loring, Davis and several homeless folk broke into the 80-year-old Imperial Hotel one night in June 1990.

Then owned by Atlanta developer John Portman, the historic building had sat vacant for a decade since it had last been used as a low-cost, single room-occupancy residential hotel. Over the course of the week, the activists remained holed up in the hotel in a standoff with city officials. Loring took advantage of the media attention and even a face-to-face meeting with then-Mayor Maynard Jackson to call on the city to create more housing for the homeless.

The takeover effectively ended when Jackson promised to help, but it would be another six years before the 120-unit Imperial Hotel was finally transformed into a mix of low-income housing and apartments for special-needs homeless.

Loring looks back at the Imperial takeover as the transcendent moment in his activism, when he most effectively followed the example set by his spiritual role model, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Not that Loring is all righteous rage; he’s also irreverent, playful, even boisterous in unguarded moments, but he fiercely attacks any attempt — even otherwise well-intentioned — to undermine the dignity or humanity of the homeless.

These days, the protests are fewer and less strident. Last summer, Open Door members dared police to arrest them as they sprawled on benches to protest a crackdown on the homeless sleeping in Woodruff Park. And, certainly, the pre-emptive war against Iraq prompted their participation in peace rallies.

But one gets the sense that Loring now is somewhat hunkered down on Ponce, tending to his community. “We’re mustard seed people,” he says, referring to the Biblical parable of small beginnings. “We’d like to change the world, but we’re able to do little things.”

The community continues to offer a range of services: twice a week it serves breakfast for 120 and lunch for 200; two days a week, homeless men and women can come for showers, free toiletries and new clothing; on Thursday evenings, volunteer doctors and med students hold a free health clinic; and throughout the week, Open Door offers free access to a telephone, toilets and whatever articles have been brought in by donors, from sleeping bags to blankets.

Open Door also serves as a mailing address for hundreds of the city’s homeless. And most members stay involved in Davis’ Southern Prison Ministry, a nationally known program that advocates against the death penalty and provides support to death row inmates.

But the community has had to pull back some of its efforts — for years it served breakfast for 240 every day of the week — in recognition of its limits.

“We’ve learned to say, what can we do?” Rustay says. “People criticize us for offering a Band-aid approach, but there are times when everybody needs a Band-aid.”

As for the city’s efforts, Loring remains ever the skeptic.

“We believe that Caesar killed Jesus,” Loring says, “so why would we want to take Caesar’s money?”