Cover Story: Solving downtown’s homeless problem begins with taking the red pill

Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter is the root of downtown’s image problem

A good friend will be in Atlanta on business this weekend, and he asked me to locate an establishment where he, I, and several real-estate industry types could watch the Alabama-LSU collegiate football contest.

I began ciphering. Because identifying a suitable environment requires a bit of something I’ve come to call “downtown algebra.”

Is said establishment reachable by MARTA? If yes, that’s good. I like MARTA, despite its perception locally. Oooh, but will the itinerary put us on a train at night? Yes, so MARTA is out. Have you tried to exit the Peachtree Station at night? Or, hell, during the day? It feels like the opening scene in a horror movie: the sound of your heels clicking, echoing through empty hallways seemingly a mile underground, with never-ending escalators designed by some Stephen King fan whose office is filled with Escher prints and toy guillotines.

Is the location walkable? My first week in town I stayed across from the Ritz for a week at the Ellis Hotel on Peachtree Street, and I walked all around the northwest end of downtown. But what if we had to travel north up Peachtree? That was a problem. Because that route up Peachtree to Pine Street was loaded with a unique type of homeless person: cracked out, angry, aggressive. That is the dichotomy of the downtown homeless issue. On one hand, there are thousands of homeless people working with outreach organizations, desperately trying to transition to more stable lives. And here, in this small but important section of downtown, hostile men and a few women wait near hotel entrances, camped out like bears waiting for salmon at the falls. When I left for the airport at 4 a.m., I saw not one but three people in the street or on street corners, each rocking like a metronome, obviously going through withdrawal.

In large part this is why, when I moved to Atlanta two weeks later, I didn’t settle downtown. The overly aggressive homeless overshadowed every great thing about my stay.

It didn’t take much research to identify the root of the problem: Peachtree-Pine’s homeless shelter is where many of those super-aggressive homeless call home. And the shelter’s culture of unaccountability obscures the work being done by other service organizations to help the majority of homeless people who want to transition and become part of the livable fabric of downtown.

Leo wants to know what the hell I’m up to, and I am quick to tell him. Leo is 6-foot-4 and stands ramrod straight. He has an easy smile, but he emanates an unmistakable “do not fuck with me” vibe.

“I’m meeting Kevin here,” I say. “Here” is in front of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where weekday mornings hundreds of homeless queue in the shadow of the Capitol, waiting for a sandwich and hot coffee. Leo helps run the morning meal program and works security at the church on Sundays. Kevin Spears works next door, for Central Outreach & Advocacy Center, the nonprofit arm of Central Presbyterian Church that helps the poor and homeless. I’m here to see how the various church- and government-run agencies minister to those in need. “I’m here to look at the Shrine,” I say, “and Central OAC, and the Gateway and others, and talk about Peachtree-Pine’s homeless center, and how—”

“Maaan,” Leo says, shaking his head. “Why you wanna put us in with that hot mess?” I don’t have to ask which shelter he’s talking about. “You see how we do it here. Everyone in line is waiting patiently, respecting each other. I don’t put up with foolishness. You want to act up, you know where you can go.”

Spears arrives and Leo takes us inside to see the day’s sandwiches being prepped (the food is donated by Starbucks and Publix, among others). That week, The Shrine will distribute 1,000 meals, and an additional 500 will receive a sit-down dinner on Saturday. Deacon Bill Payne, the church’s outreach director, arrives and shows us the room filled with hundreds of blankets to distrubute as temperatures drop.

These efforts may not seem like much given the size of the city of Metro Atlanta’s homeless population is estimated this year at nearly 20,000 — more than 6,000 on any given day, 4,000-5,000 of whom are downtown. But the Shrine is just one of the service organizations that fall loosely under the umbrella of the Regional Commission on Homelessness (run by United Way). One of those is Peachtree-Pine. It houses around 10 percent of the population, about 600, every day. That’s a lot of intimidating ambassadors for the city.

I ask if the homeless ring the streets around the Capitol because the church seems safe. “That’s part of it,” he says. “When it turns cold, they have to take extra precautions. Their blankets and coats get stolen, and sometimes even their shoes are cut off their feet while they sleep.” We pass at least two families with children who slept outside the night before.

We arrive at the Gateway Center. Housed in a former jail, it defines its mission as “providing the support and framework people need to achieve self-sufficiency.” It offers a roadmap to such services. If you have nowhere to turn, you check in here, get some clothes, shower, brush your teeth, and then you’re guided to the best help available. Gateway deals with more than 70 organizations that offer everything from education to drug treatment to job training. The night before, it housed more than 300 people.

Now it’s back to Central OAC, where we discuss how downtown homelessness and redevelopment relate to one another. There is a real effort underway by many — service providers, arts groups, entrepreneurs, even the city itself — to seed growth downtown. They realize that a strong core is vital for Atlanta. But with so many homeless clustered downtown, it becomes a roadblock to development.

“A lot of folks suggest spreading out the areas of assistance and care across the region,” Spears says. “But you see how much red tape there is. If you don’t have an ID, for example, you can’t do anything. Depending on the state where you were born, it might take months. To get to these different agencies with no ID, and therefore no job, you have to walk. So all of us being centrally located is crucial. There’s no easy solution.”

Later that evening, I walk through Five Points with a coterie from Central Atlanta Progress, the nonprofit that works through its public-private partnership to create a more livable downtown district. They give me the broader picture of how far Atlanta’s downtown has come since the ‘96 Olympics, and what it could be in this decade: transit solutions, retail and residential ideas that offer the density needed to bring about sustainable vitality. But they know there are two problems in convincing people to live downtown: the public school system and public safety. The latter is bound with the homeless issue.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” says A.J. Robinson, president of CAP. “Our reaction is a blessing because downtown’s response to dealing with the homeless issue, in most cases, shows that we care about our fellow man. It’s a curse because no one else is really doing it regularly, and so there is an overabundance of homelessness downtown. It does feel like we’re swimming upstream sometimes.”

All of downtown’s stakeholders feel that way. Although the homeless population in Atlanta has remained fairly steady the past few years, the weariness with the issue is growing. “A lot of the NPUs (Neighborhood Planning Units, which advise the City Council) in the core of Atlanta have become worn out,” says Stan Dawson, executive director of Crossroads Community Ministries, which last year provided (among many other things) more than 3,000 IDs to homeless in need. “They want the problem to go away. They don’t want people defecating in their backyard. So there is a great divide between NPUs and service providers. With most of the service providers, we would love to work on the issues. But that doesn’t get much ink.”

What gets ink is what one service provider calls “the ones who suck the air out of the room” — the shelter at Peachtree-Pine. He describes what others have long said are its problems. Many of its guests don’t abide by the rules of other agencies: no drinking or drugs, no panhandling, no fighting, a desire to transition into stability. “The people who run Peachtree-Pine have their hearts in the right place,” says one person who knows the shelter well, “but they ask for no accountability.”

When I finally included Peachtree-Pine in my downtown algebra, everything came together, beautiful-mind style. What I saw clustered around the shelter, the drug use, fights and fearlessness, scared the hell out of me. That’s why most people will do what I did: make a snap judgment. Decide Atlanta is too rough. Move somewhere else. And that’s why Peachtree-Pine needs to go.

But the shelter won’t be gone by this weekend. I chose the Luckie Marietta District for football viewing. It’s walkable. It’s diverse. It’s downtown. And we won’t have to walk toward the intersection of Peachtree and Pine.