What Will Replace the Southeast’s Largest Homeless Shelter?
A long-running battle over the largest homeless shelter in the Southeast has ended in a deal that will put the promises of its critics to the test.
On August 28, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless will hand over the keys to the one-time auto-parts warehouse it’s run for 20 years at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets, in the middle of the city’s main drag. Usually shorthanded as “Peachtree-Pine,” the facility’s main bunkroom has beds for more than 300 – and on some winter nights, close to 1,000 people have crammed into the building, which spans a full block.
Residents in the surrounding neighborhood have long complained of the homeless who line the sidewalks outside, many of them mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Even some homeless advocates have acknowledged it’s become part of the problem rather than a solution. Atlanta’s mayor has threatened to seize the increasingly valuable property through eminent domain and replace it with a police and fire station.
Now a settlement of a long-running lawsuit means the shelter will give up the building to the business coalition Central Atlanta Progress in exchange for a reported $9.7 million – and a city where homelessness has long been a notorious problem will have to find someplace to put the hundreds of people it housed.
“The real work begins on August 28,” said Jack Hardin, co-chairman of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, an arm of the Atlanta-area United Way.
Peachtree-Pine will stay open for several more months as other agencies work to find its residents space in other shelters – or more permanent housing when possible. Hardin said caseworkers are already trying to get to know the center’s clientele in preparation for the handover.
“It won’t be our plan just to move them from one shelter to another,” Hardin said “Between now and August 28, we are sending in caseworkers and trying to get to know the people there, to understand what their issues are and what their barriers and what their abilities may be.”
And the United Way and the city are each putting up $25 million in a new push to tackle homelessness in Atlanta, where about 4,000 people are estimated to live in shelters, in temporary housing or on the streets. Hardin said the organizations are committed to finding someplace “for every single person that’s affected by this closure.”
But how that will be done isn’t yet clear. Fulton County has said it wants to reopen a 150-bed men’s shelter on the west side of town, and Hardin said a smaller shelter for women and children will be opening on the south side. But Hardin said that with access to better services, there’s not likely to be a need to replace Peachtree-Pine bed-for-bed.
“It’s been our plan that we would start with a men’s shelter and a family shelter and see if that satisfied the demand,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll increase the capacity. But we would do it on sort of an organic basis as the need reveals itself, because some of the people who are sheltering today may be in permanent housing tomorrow.”
Carl Hartrampf, now the executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force, says he’s hopeful the city and its partners can live up to those pledges. But he said the group will be watching what happens after it gives up its longtime home.
“We’ll be tracking that very carefully, and we’ll be speaking into that if we see any limitations or any hesitation,” he said. “And we’ll be pushing for other legislation and action to eliminate the barriers we see. We need more housing, and we need more jobs.”
The area’s current council representative, Kwanza Hall, called the shelter’s handover and eventual closure a “watershed moment” that will allow more people – including nearby residents who had given up amid the long-running dispute – to come to the table and help solve the city’s chronic problem. Hall said neighborhood leaders have met the plan with “very cautious optimism,” with some raising concerns about oversight and possible unexpected consequences.
“People believe it when they see it,” said Hall, who is also one of nine major candidates running for mayor in November. “And then even when it actually happens, what happens next – and next, and next after that – are some of the questions that still are in a to-be-determined place.”
He said the city could help resettle some of the currently homeless in properties that are now dilapidated.
“Not everyone is ready to go directly into a place they manage themselves, but they could go into a managed rooming-type scenario or a small apartment building in a roommate situation,” Hall said. “That could be a huge step up and a way to clean up neighborhoods.”
The long-running dispute over Peachtree-Pine pitted Atlanta’s business elite against the Coca-Cola heirs who donated the building to the Task Force, neighborhood residents against the shelter’s residents, and homeless advocates against each other. Critics say the shelter lacks the kind of services offered at other facilities like the Gateway Center, a city-backed downtown facility where the homeless can be connected to job training, health care and veterans’ programs.
Debi Starnes, who was the “homelessness czar” for former Mayor Shirley Franklin, said the Task Force “had good intentions” — but it has been out of step with other organizations for some time.
“The differences in philosophy have been significant,” said Starnes, who now sits on the Gateway Center board and once represented the district that includes Peachtree-Pine on the City Council.
“We’re all focused on what truly is a continuum of care, starting with low-barrier shelters all the way to permanent supportive housing for the rest of the person’s life if they’re seriously mentally ill or disabled,” she added. “There’s a whole lot going on. It’s not a short story.”
Starnes said that strategy is already bearing fruit: The city’s estimated homeless population has fallen from nearly 6,000 in 2011, with the number estimated to be living on the streets falling from almost 1,500 to fewer than 850 in 2016, according to the most recent figures.
Hartrampf said Peachtree-Pine has never pretended to be more than an overflow shelter — a “low-barrier” facility that takes in anyone, as long as they haven’t been kicked out for misconduct before. The problems stem from the city’s failure to solve the problems, he said.
Hartrampf said the settlement means the Task Force will be able to get back to its roots as a clearinghouse that directs homeless people to other service providers.
“We are now moving out of the emergency shelter business and continuing to focus on direct services, whether it’s helping people get ID’s, getting housing, getting counseling,” he said.
The nearly 100,000-foot Peachtree-Pine building spans a block of what’s now prime real estate in the city’s Midtown district. Up the street, luxury apartments are popping up like mushrooms. Emory University runs a major downtown hospital in the neighborhood, and the tallest building in the Southeast – the 1,023-foot Bank of America Plaza – dominates the view from the shelter’s rooftop garden.
But outside the shelter, homeless men and women start lining the sidewalks by mid-morning in anticipation of getting a bed for the night. They huddle in whatever shade they can get, leaning on backpacks, coolers or plastic bags stuffed with clothing.
Peachtree-Pine caseworker Anthony Murphy was one of them once. Now, he helps people at the shelter sign up for food stamps, look for housing, and get tested for tuberculosis—doctors identified a new strain there in 2008, leading Mayor Kasim Reed to accuse the shelter of being a hotbed of the disease.
“We’re the villain all the time, no matter what’s going on,” Murphy said. “But those who need us, they know what’s going on.”
Murphy is a self-professed former “dope fiend” who served time for murder in Washington state. He came to Atlanta after getting out of prison in 2011, only to find himself broke six months later. He took a bed at the shelter, became a “resident volunteer” – a kind of dorm adviser – and eventually landed a permanent post at Peachtree-Pine.
“I’m hoping that when we get to another spot and a fresh start, that we’ll have more resources than we have now for the things that we aren’t able to do now,” he said.
Trudy Boyce, a former Atlanta police lieutenant and counselor who trained officers in working with the homeless and mentally ill, said the presence of large numbers of people with substance abuse disorders drew drug dealers to the area.
“The incentive’s too great,” she said. “If you have people who are desperate, they will do desperate things.” In addition, many of the mentally ill get treatment only when arrested, because there aren’t enough services for them outside.
“Our jails in this country are the largest houser of people who have mental illness,” Boyce said. “It’s tragic, and of course the crisis care worker ends up being the cop on the beat who responds to those people who are poor and have mental illness and are in crisis.”
Murphy acknowledges the complaints. Some of those on the sidewalks have been barred from the shelter for getting high inside, he said. But he added, “This place has a bad reputation because the people who want this building want it to have a bad reputation.”
The comment reflects the bad blood engendered during the long-running battle over Peachtree-Pine. About a decade after it moved in, the Task Force lost donors and government grants and had to borrow money to stay afloat. Facing foreclosure, it went to court in 2010, accusing Central Atlanta Progress, city officials, and private investors of conspiring to chase off contributors and strangle it financially.
City officials and CAP denied the allegations. But in October 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that the shelter could take its case to a jury.
By the beginning of 2017, a rough outline of a deal was taking shape, Hartrampf said. But the proposal caused a struggle among the Task Force’s board, and Anita Beaty –who had led the Task Force since the 1980s and fought to keep it afloat – decided to retire. The deal was announced in June.
“We are where we are, and anything that was in the past, we should all leave in the past,” Hall said. “We need to take this moment and commit to working together and create winning scenarios for everyone and every group and every interest, starting with those who need the help most.”
After August, the Task Force hopes to find space nearby to continue its work, along with space somewhere in town for an urban farm to replace the building’s rooftop planters. Hartrampf is tight-lipped about the settlement, but says it will leave that Task Force enough for a fresh start after the debts are paid off.
And he warns that the problems that bring people to Peachtree-Pine in the first place won’t go away without changes to public policies. While the city and other agencies have created more support services and counseling, there’s still not enough affordable housing in Atlanta or jobs that allow people to make the rent in the rapidly gentrifying city, he said.
“We feel that everybody’s entitled to safe, decent, affordable housing and the facilities and the services that go with it,” he said.
Matt Smith is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers a variety of issues, including science, medicine, juvenile justice and related public policy issues. His work has appeared in outlets like CNN, Vice News, WebMD and Youth Today.