Opinion - City Hall's Peachtree-Pine dilemma

Officials must figure out a plan to house the homeless before city cuts off Peachtree-Pine's water supply

On Aug. 21, the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management sent notices to almost 300 businesses and nonprofits behind on their water bills to collect more than $6 million in uncollected revenue. Settle your debts within 30 days, officials said, or your water will be shut off.

Atop that list is the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, the longtime operator of the city's largest homeless shelter located at Peachtree and Pine streets, with a mammoth $409,000 bill.

Watershed officials, who are still searching for hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen equipment including a $80,000 backhoe, have a difficult choice. Doing nothing might make other delinquent customers wonder why they should pay.

But if the city does turn off Peachtree-Pine's tap, as many as 1,000 homeless men, women, and children could be forced out of the shelter and onto the streets. In the process, City Hall would shut down a vital and controversial resource for the homeless. City officials say they're devising a plan to take care of people who rely on the shelter, but it needs to be made public and adequately funded. Failing to do so — even if Fulton abdicates the role it's supposed to play — would jeopardize the safety of thousands of homeless Atlantans and undermine the city's recent efforts.

City and Task Force officials have been here before. In December 2008, the city cut the water after the shelter amassed $160,000 in water bills. A judge intervened, and hours later up to 700 homeless people were able to return.

Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Melissa Mullinax says the Task Force struck a deal with the city to resume its water payments following the 2008 shutoff. According to Watershed records, the Task Force stopped making payments after July 2010. The city again threatened to shut off the water in 2011 over a $237,000 bill. The debt has grown as the Task Force battles with the building's owners in court. Anita Beaty, the Task Force's longtime executive director, has alleged that city and business leaders want to boot the nonprofit in hopes of flipping the property.

"I want to pay the water bill," she says. "I'd pay it today if we could establish the amount of money we owed. We want to know exactly what we owe and pay a little bit along the way."

According to Task Force lawyer Steven Hall, the shelter has saved the public millions by keeping homeless people out of jail, directing them to resources, and helping some get back on their feet. He wonders why the city won't help the Task Force write off its bills. He claims that companies that owed more had their bills forgiven.

"It makes me wonder how the cutoff line to write off water bills was determined," Hall says. "It doesn't seem right."

The city denies playing favorites to keep the Task Force atop the list of debtors and giving other delinquent customers a pass. Mullinax says city protocol requires businesses — including the Task Force — be bankrupt or closed, and debts must be five years old before bills are forgiven.

"The shelter has been in crisis for a long time now and this water cutoff is the latest one," Mullinax says. "They're operating under an eviction order. There's been a [http://www.wsbtv.com/news/news/homeless-shelter-criticized-for-tb-response/nJXh4/|major tuberculosis outbreak]. ... This water issue is one of any number of issues that could bring this crisis to a head."

The Task Force has its share of critics, including other homeless advocates, city officials, and even people it's supposed to serve. People in the past have claimed that the shelter was unsafe and unsanitary. Some homeless residents have told CL they prefer to sleep on the streets. But despite its flaws, the shelter provides a safety net for Atlanta's entire homelessness network. Simply put, the services provided by the Task Force help other organizations from being overwhelmed.

Beaty says Peachtree-Pine has moved beyond its longtime role of serving people turned away from other facilities. Considering Fulton's closure of two shelters with roughly 300 total beds and cuts at other facilities, she says the city should acknowledge, and not dismiss, the Task Force's role.

If officials shut off Peachtree-Pine's water sometime after Sept. 22 — and there's a strong chance they will — then the city bears the responsibility of finding shelter for the city's most vulnerable homeless population. Mullinax says the city, the United Way of Greater Atlanta, and others have a plan in the works to "respond to whatever crisis erupts" at Peachtree-Pine next.

"People won't just be turned out," she says. "There would be outreach, and there will be a plan to shelter people in a place that's cleaner and safer if it gets to that."

Mullinax and other officials declined to discuss any further details about plans for a city-backed shelter that accepts all men, women, and children. Reed and Fulton Chairman John Eaves, who in May publicly sparred over who was doing more to help the homeless, have recently had brief conversations about the issue. The city, county, and partners could make a plan to replace the Task Force as a service provider. If what we're hearing is more than lip service, the city's reported plan could even improve on the current services.

The city has a moral obligation to step up and do something, especially if Fulton does not. If the Task Force ceased operations, the shelter — the building and what it provides — should remain. Closing it outright over a water bill would tarnish Reed's efforts on the issue. Until city officials reveal their panacea for housing Peachtree-Pine's residents, the shelter should stay open and serve the homeless. Anything less would be an injustice.