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The end of Peachtree-Pine

As the controversial shelter braces for closure, director Anita Beaty reflects on 20 years of fighting homelessness

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Photo credit: Joeff Davis
GUIDING LIGHT: Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force

Come this August, one of the largest safety nets for Atlanta's homeless population the Peachtree-Pine shelter will be closing its doors forever. Led by Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, the 100,000-square-foot Downtown building (donated by Coca-Cola heiress Ednabelle Wardlaw) has served people experiencing homelessness for the past 20 years. Peachtree-Pine is a "low-barrier" shelter in the sense that anyone, no matter how they come clean or using drugs, mentally ill or not, identification documents or none can stay the night. The shelter, however, has been the subject of several major controversies over the years.

Among the points of contention related to Peachtree-Pine has been the organization's unwillingness to participate in the collection of data about the people it serves. And the City has long expressed interest in closing the shelter, including talk of using eminent domain if necessary, for myriad reasons. But now, after finally settling long-running litigation, the city won't have to go to such lengths: The Task Force is selling the building to Central Atlanta Progress, a group of Downtown business leaders.

Before the nonprofit turns out the lights one last time, however, we sat down with Beaty to discuss the controversies, homelessness in Atlanta and the protracted legal and political battles that surrounded Peachtree-Pine in its final years.

You've been running Peachtree-Pine for the last 20 years. What does that mean exactly?

It means: It runs me. I miss it so much. I miss community, which exists (at the shelter) in ways I've never seen anywhere else. I'm not saying it's unique, but it's unique in my experience. Fun, funny, tragic and sad. It's infuriating, it's ragged, it's exquisite, it's magical. It's all of that.

You started working on homelessness in Atlanta in the 1980s with the Task Force. Were there any major policy changes in those early years that impacted homelessness here?

The Olympics was like the juggernaut that came and changed everything in Atlanta in terms of housing policy, social policy, everything ... the development of Downtown. The whole Olympic lead-up from '91 to '96 was a time of absolutely crazy machinations from the state level to the county, the city and federal, too, to make things easy for private development. They predicted that they needed to have easy ways to incarcerate people and hold them without using habeas corpus for about four weeks which they did do (by using) ordinances (like one) that made it illegal to remain in a parking lot if you didn't have a car parked there.

They would have press conferences and announce the money that's been going to social programs was going to go to beautification. But everyone would say, "Of course!" I mean, even progressive people would say: "Anita just calm down. Y'all need to just wait till after the games. It's all going to be OK. It will get back to normal." It never got back to normal.

How were homeless people treated at that time?

Well, 9,000 African-American men were arrested during about 16 months. As if arrest was supposed to be some sort of deterrent to being poor and homeless. It was status offenses: no probable cause for arrest. Just, like, you were in the wrong place. There was an ordinance that said if you were in a known drug area (you could be arrested). And as I used to say, that could be my living room when all my teenagers were home.

This is a population a lot of people fear. I think that’s obvious just in the way we talk about people who are experiencing homelessness.

That is so silly. We used to take some of the (Peachtree-Pine) residents to the neighborhood meetings. I remember 10 years ago, being at a neighborhood meeting with the residents. These are people who are not used to being in meetings like that. (But) they’re gentle, for the most part, and they want to know what’s going on. They want to participate. One of the women in that group who was a (homeowner) looked at them and said: “We pay too much to have to be in a neighborhood with y’all. And smell things and … look at you.” And I just said: “I cannot imagine how you can think that you can be that rude to people that you don’t even know.”

Where do you think that fear comes from?

A lot from public images. And people who are determined to protect their businesses and want to kind of Disney-fy Downtown. It behooves them to make people afraid of homeless people so they won’t protest when they’re removed. Instead of having a policeman come and crack somebody on the feet to wake ’em up in a doorway, when you open your (business) doors you could say: “What do you need? Do you need to come in and go to the bathroom?” I mean, you know. Maybe it’s a little Pollyanna-ish, but it’s the way I think things should go.

What were the biggest challenges you faced running Peachtree-Pine?

Externally, the challenges were the assumptions that people made about what went on inside by looking at the outside. Driving by and making judgments. And not only that — telling everybody they knew: “We’ve got to get rid of that place,” without knowing.

Inside, the biggest challenges (were) keeping the building in some state of repair and making sure that we had volunteer staffing in place who could do what they needed to do to keep everybody safe and that we could keep up with who was in there all the time. Sometimes it was hard to see the deep need because many of the people in the deepest need didn’t say anything. In a place like that, the squeaky wheel gets the service.

But in the garage, where everybody hangs out, that’s where the grace is. One time, I’m leaning on the door and Charlie* (*not his real name), he stayed with us for years. He didn’t have any ID, he had no papers. He was probably a savant, but everybody thought he was just really, really mentally ill. But some of us just loved him. But this day he was on my last nerve. And I’m leaning against the wall and he comes up to me and says, “What’s a matter with you, Ms. Anita?” I say, “I’m just tired. I’m just worn out. I’m stressed.” And he asks, “Do you swim?” And I’m thinking, “Oh great, he’s going to tell me I need to exercise.” But I say, “Yes, I do.” And he says, “Do you know how to float? All you have to do is float.”

Many examples of that kind of grace happened to me all the time.

Peachtree-PineJoeff Davis

What convinces you of the need for a place like Peachtree-Pine in Atlanta?

The experience we've had for the last 20 years. The use of it. The knowledge we have of the spaces that exist in Atlanta and what the criteria are for accessing them. The limited amount of time you can stay in most of those spaces. And how women in particular are forced to circulate and cycle among all of them: 30 days here, 45 days there, maybe 30 days here. And then once they've been through that cycle, they can't start over again. And nothing has changed about their financial situation.

How would you describe the services that are currently available to the homeless in Atlanta?I think: "inadequate." The services should be attached to some sort of housing. I mean, when homeless people have caseworkers at different agencies but they're still sleeping at Peachtree-Pine, or on the street, something's wrong with that. Who can really wait weeks (on a waitlist) for housing? Our thing is: If you need a place to sleep tonight, you've got a place to sleep tonight. It makes no sense otherwise. There used to be a very collegial way everybody in the service community would come together. If there was a pot of money available we would say, "OK, this money's available. What can we do as a group? We know what the gaps in the service system are; let's enumerate them. Let's write them down." It wasn't a controlling way. Nobody was really in charge. It's very different now.

Dream big: What is the ideal way that service provision could work in the city when there are multiple service providers?Collaboration. And coordination by one agency that controls a lot money, in particular is not the same thing as collaboration. I mean if you've been to a Continuum of Care (CoC) meeting (the City's coordinating body on homelessness), you'll see. It's not collaborative.

First of all, homelessness was not created by the lack of shelter or available social services. It's a policy issue. A housing policy issue and an employment issue, too. But we can't think that by streamlining or refining or making the services more robust we're going to end homelessness until we have housing for everybody. And that takes political will, it takes leadership willing to take a risk; we are fresh out of that in Atlanta. You can judge the well-being of a society or community by the well-being of its most in-need citizens, and I would say homeless people are the most in-need.

How is what Peachtree-Pine is doing different than what other shelters are doing?

Well, accepting people without ID or any sort of pre-application documentation. And saying upon entrance, we'll help you get it: everything from TB screening to ID to whatever they needed. Our idea was they get in, they get a bed, or a mat, and then the next day we start working on what they need to get to the next step. And that's what we do.

How does Peachtree-Pine serve women and children?

Badly. We grieve that we have no legal space in that building to actually house women and children. For almost a year, we had up to 150-200 women and children there. And then the city stopped giving us occupancy permits. So right now they are still sleeping on mats on the floor. It's not what we want. But it's better, some people would argue, than being outside.

Some people say that all Peachtree-Pine has is available beds.

A lot of people say that. Well, they're either ignorant or they don't know, or they have an agenda and want to further the sort of demonizing of Peachtree-Pine by saying we don't do anything for anybody. If they would come in and see, they might change their minds.

A common complaint about Peachtree-Pine is the loitering and criminal activity that takes place outside of it.

Yeah. I went to the police precinct across the street numerous times to say, "Help us with this. Clean it up out there so that we're not jeopardized." Our guys, the guys who are our volunteer security, were scared to death. I say it was the city not taking responsibility for our safety in that place. We had a couple of incidents where shots were fired, and we had volunteer groups inside serving meals. We went straight across (to the police precinct) and said, "This can't be." We wrote to the City. Nothing. We tried to get an appointment with the police chief. We never did. But now that the deal supposedly is done, and Central Atlanta Progress and the Continuum of Care are coming in, it's a little bit different. Because the City will decide they deserve to be protected. They don't need to make it look like the Wild West, which helped them lobby. Who would save Peachtree-Pine when it looked like the Wild West of drug deals? Who wants to protect that? And the people inside were jeopardized! The women and children. Nobody seemed to care about that.

You've said Peachtree-Pine has served as many as 15,000 people in a year. How did you reach them?Back in the day, we had a whole telephone system with maybe six phones in the room and people doing intakes on the phone, which we computerized as we took them. And we took them into this huge wonderful database that we still have. And we won't give it to (anyone else).

Why?

Because! They use that information to track people and withhold services from them if they think they've had too many. Or if they haven't done right, or if they're homeless again after a year. Now that (the CoC) has this (Vulnerability Index) thing, which analyzes and reports all their vulnerability, they get in line for housing, and the most vulnerable get the housing first. But that housing is not permanent and if it lasts for 90 days with a full subsidy, there is very little permanent employment that's possible in that time. So that if you get hit for rent on that 91st day, you may be back on the street.

And we know. The cases we get are the people who have spun out. They couldn't make it. They didn't get the support services or they did get them, but they just couldn't handle the rent. And if you are in a city where there's no new affordable housing being constructed, and the city itself has changed the definition of affordability to make it higher so the developers are happier about it and can still get tax credits and federal support, then you're playing musical chairs with housing.

No matter what they say about "housing first" and "rapid rehousing," it isn't working unless you have an available supply of affordable housing that isn't currently occupied, or that people are being evicted from and then you put other people in. I mean it's just insane. So if you get those resources and you work your way up that list and get the housing, and if you're lucky enough that the housing has support service attached but if you're in private housing it may not and then they say they're providing it, but it's catch as catch can, usually. Then if you so-called "lose" that housing or you're "difficult to serve" or you're non-compliant somehow, you can't get back through that loop again. And you are S.O.L.

But they won't talk about it because they don't want to lose the money and not be able to offer any housing. So they'll do whatever it takes to get the money. It's so backwards because the Feds will decide what they want to fund based on not much veterans housing or "the chronically homeless" and completely leave out families who are economically depressed and oppressed who need housing, too.

CLOSING TIME: Beaty inside Peachtree-Pine, whose beds will soon be permanently empty.Joeff Davis

What's the better alternative to responding that way, given how grants are structured? With the funding priorities listing certain demographic populations to serve named by the grantor, not the grantee.Since public housing has lost its funding for the most part, we need a way to offer the same kind of permanently subsidized housing to people who will probably make minimum wage until they retire. When the supportive housing people came to Atlanta about 20 years ago, we said if you bring new funding with you, that'll be great. But if you come here to get the funding that's already pitiful and set it aside for permanent supportive housing, there will be ordinances that will use NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) to keep you out of their neighborhoods. Because you're requiring supportive housing; you're making a different kind of housing, rather than just affordable housing.

Anytime you have housing for special populations, it's going to be legislated against by neighborhood groups. Unless they're enlightened enough to say, "Wow, we don't have enough affordable housing, and we don't have any shelters, and we don't have any good homes. We need to go get some so we can be inclusive!" And that won't happen until God brings the kingdom home, I guess.

Some would criticize not sharing that data about needs you all gathered from the hotline intakes because it could be used to help people. It could be, if in the right hands.

There you go. You just said it. No, the people whose data that is should control that data. In fact, we always wanted to give them a card where they could access their data. And if they want a system that everybody shares in, only the person whose data it is can give you access to that data by giving you the card. That's what we wanted.

Why that way instead of the way it's being used?

Because agencies are sharing it amongst themselves!

Why is that bad? I would think that means they're coordinating services, not duplicating work, figuring out what kind of help someone has already gotten and how to help them further.

Why do they need to know what help they've had without asking them? I mean, if I go to you, I don't want you to know everything about me before I walk in the door. That's insulting. That's condescending. It's patronizing. It smacks of tracking the person. Why? We're afraid people will double-dip? God bless 'em if they can.

How has Atlanta's homeless population changed since 1997?

It's younger. Families make up probably close to 40, maybe 50, percent overall. I think they're more representative of people with multiple needs. They're a little more fragile. They are homeless maybe longer because there are fewer units of housing available.

Why are they more fragile?

Well, they've been around to all the service providers usually. And they're so despondent because they've been turned down, or what they needed wasn't available, or they didn't qualify, or something.

You were supposed to have a jury trial to present claims that Central Atlanta Progress, city officials, Emory University and others conspired to sabotage funding for the Task Force. What happened?

Yes. It was supposed to be in June this year. Now it's not going to happen because of the settlement. That is the great tragedy. The biggest tragedy is that we won't get to find out the truth. I was looking forward to airing everything out in court. Making documents public so that people would know who makes the decisions - people and institutions with influence and money, generally. Most of the time, elected officials don't make the decisions. There are plenty of them who are clearly carrying the water for people who are not elected and who are not responsible to the citizens of this city.

To someone who is skeptical of your claims that there was conspiring to sabotage funding, what would you say?

I'd say wait for the book.

What is the future of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless?

I really don't know. I have no idea what money might be leftover from the ($9.7 million) settlement after all the debts are paid. I have no idea. But I think it's lost its heart.

What do you think the future of homeless service provision is in Atlanta?

Well, the idea would be that they would work themselves out of jobs and advocate for housing. But I don't see much policy advocacy from the service provider community - policy advocacy that would end homelessness and not further institutionalize it. Housing policies are just getting worse in this city, not better. Developers write the policies, figuratively. And good politicians who understand the policy issues have a difficult time staying in office or getting elected in the first place. We need a fair-share zoning policy. We always have! Why doesn't Buckhead have some low-income housing and some group homes and transitional housing?

Is there any way in which this settlement could actually work out for the best?

Sure, God could come again. You can't separate the settlement from the fact of the existence of Peachtree-Pine. Unless there's another facility that does what Peachtree-Pine did do for 20 years - a place where people can go inside and be welcomed when they need a place to stay, right that minute. I'm not saying we are perfect, not by a long shot. But every shelter in Atlanta uses Peachtree-Pine to say, "You can go to Peachtree-Pine. If you don't qualify for us, you can go to Peachtree-Pine." Whether they like us or hate us, you know, we're used.