Opinion - The ripple effect

The subtle ways the judge in the Peachtree-Pine case is hurting Atlanta

One of the most vexing and enduring problems facing Atlanta is homelessness, as well as the related but not identical issue of panhandling. For many citizens, the topic is vastly misunderstood. They equate the visible, offensive panhandlers with homelessness — and residents fear little is being done. The truth is that Atlanta is a model for most American cities in creating effective, progressive programs that effectively find housing for the homeless and ensure that programs allow these distressed people an opportunity to re-enter society.

Among the approximately 100 agencies that serve the homeless in Atlanta, one stands out as an obstacle to finding solutions to homelessness. That agency is the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, aka the shelter at Pine and Peachtree streets. The "task force" is really one person, Anita Beaty, and a few followers.

For years, Beaty has embroiled the city in a series of lawsuits to keep control of property she does not own and has no legitimate reason to occupy. In essence, her "task force" is the organizational equivalent of an aggressive panhandler, threatening the city if she doesn't get what she wants. Beaty has alleged a conspiracy so broad that virtually anyone who criticizes her tyranny could be targeted.

But there are other more subtle dangers to Atlanta from Beaty's actions. Aiding and abetting Beaty is Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall, who has basically refused to uphold the law. The "task force" building at Pine and Peachtree is not owned by Beaty or her group. They lost the building in foreclosure — they didn't pay their mortgage, which was due in June 2006. And Beaty refuses to pay rent today to the new owners, has stiffed the city on a water bill estimated at $250,000, and has had a federal tax lien of almost $70,000.

Last October, it looked like Beaty would finally get the heave-ho, and by February eviction loomed for the "task force." The judge seemed to know the score, saying during a hearing, "This is the most acrimonious litigation I've ever seen in my career ... and it indicates to me that the Beatys can't get along with anybody. ... I'm not convinced that the Beatys have the best interests of the homeless in this city at heart. It's more about power, money, control, revenge, and anger."

But Schwall created a complicated Rube Goldberg legal machine to throw out his own order, and let Beaty continue squatting on the property. There's suspicion that Schwall, who seems to be enthralled by Beaty's lawyer, created the very series of maneuvers that let the "task force" survive.

It's worth noting that Schwall is a Republican, a party that often prizes property rights over human rights. In this case, the judge trashes both — the property rights of the landowner and the awful conditions of the shelter's residents.

This sort of legal problem isn't rocket science. Renters who refuse to pay their rent get evicted. Schwall, in an incredible, convoluted series of rulings and stalls, has refused to uphold that basic law.

That would be bad enough. But now Schwall's bizarre behavior is hurting Atlanta's economy. I am aware of contacts in the corporate and nonprofit community who fear the impact of Schwall's recalcitrance. Nonprofit organizations — one is a school — seeking to find space in the city are being told by landlords that their wealthiest donors may be asked to sign personal guarantees for the rent. The landlords fret that nonprofits could barrage the landlord with outrageous litigation and get a judge such as Schwall who won't uphold common sense and hundreds of years of established law. Some lenders — including one of the bigger banks — are hesitant to make loans in Fulton, again because Schwall's actions are having a chilling impact on the ability of businesses to enforce their rights. Finally, some companies are considering moving their legal addresses and registered agents to other counties — in order to get legal actions held in any venue other than Fulton — again fearing the mercurial court rulings of Schwall.

Beaty's perennial threat is that if her operation is evicted, hundreds of homeless men will flood the street. The truth? The hundreds of men at the shelter won't be thrown on the street. Only the operators will be evicted, and competent management spearheaded by the United Way will be brought in.

For the city, its citizens, and, most important, the homeless population, that will be good. As a community, we have the tools to heal and help people living on the street. At the heart of the problem is this basic fact: Shelter alone isn't the cure-all for homelessness. Even if Pine and Peachtree had provided safe, sanitary shelter, it has never been part of the many outstanding community efforts to try to ameliorate homelessness. Schwall and Fulton County government must bear the blame for allowing this to continue.

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