Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For...

Atlanta Shelter Gets Sacked by Judge

The powers that be in Atlanta received a favorable ruling from a Fulton County Judge, now they have to figure out what to do with 400 to 800 people who show up seeking shelter every night.  The local United Way, the Downtown Business Improvement District and the local foundation community have pushed around the Peachtree Pine shelter for years.  This week they succeeded in getting a favorable decision by a local judge that could result in the closing of the shelter by August 2012.  We have had short discussions about the Atlanta situation here and here and here on this blog.  The business elite in Atlanta got their wish, the shelter director is being evicted, and the shelter will be forced to close as summer winds down.  They cut off funding for the facility, and yet it stayed open.  They foreclosed on the building, and it remained.  A new owner purchased the property and worked to remove the existing shelter staff, but the Beaty's who run the shelter held on.   

In an especially harsh verdict against the Metro Atlanta Task Force, the director, Anita Beaty, was told by the Judge that she must leave the facility by February 15, 2012 at noon.  The United Way will take over the facility and have until August 31, 2012 to relocate all the residents to other shelters or into housing. It is likely that the Task Force's lawyers will appeal this decision, and this will likely push these deadlines.  But no city in the United States has ever relocated thousands of long term homeless people in a short period of time.  If it were not for the fact that these are peoples lives that the court is gambling with, it would be interesting to see if a social service collaboration can put together enough funds to relocate such a large number of fragile people.

The judge was very angry that the Occupy Atlanta advocates were allowed to move into the shelter.  Judge Craig Schwall in issuing his verdict on Friday had harsh words for Anita Beaty, the director of the Task Force.  The Atlanta Progressive News article quoted the judge as saying, "I'm not convinced they ( Jim and Anita Beaty) have the best interests of the homeless in this city.  If they did, they wouldn't be in contested litigation and move Occupy Atlanta in, which is a political statement.  And they would've let United Way in.  If they can't do that, its about power and control and revenge."  It is sad that the judge felt the need to condemn and question a person who has put 30 years of service to those struggling with their housing in his public comments. 

There will be many around the country watching this experiment in homeless crisis management. Cities typically do a poor job of assisting populations without media consultants or lobbyists with expensive suits in a time of emergency.  In context, the city of Atlanta already cut $18 million out of their 2012 budget and the next budget does not look good. The United Way of Atlanta reported a 10% decline in funds for 2011 to 2012.  Where is the money going to come from to serve a couple thousand people?

The Atlanta Journal article quoted Protip Biswas (I know, looks like a text message mishap) from United Way as being able to find space for 25 people in transitional beds.  He said, "We know we can small manageable numbers of 20 to 25, but if there are more that it will have to be a drastic solution of throwing mats on the floor." How many mats will fit on the floor of the Georgia Dome?   Based on those numbers and the reality that half the population turns over every 30 days, the United Way will start with 550 people and add around 275 new people per month.  At the rate of finding housing for 20 to 25 people per month and with the hope that Homelessness in America ends to coincide with the August 31st, 2012 deadline, Atlanta would be able to relocate those who show up at the Peachtree Pine Shelter over the next six months by April 2020.  We have plenty of experience with overflow shelter in Cleveland, and what judges, media, elected officials, and bureaucrats often do not understand--homelessness does not stop to allow us to solve a community problem.  When we shut down our overflow facility one winter in Cleveland, the discussion was always where are we going to put the 120 people who were living in the overflow shelter every night.  But the real discussion should have been about the over 900 people who used the facility during the course of the winter.

What typically happens when shelter is curtailed is that more people will live outside or they will ride the transportation system all day.  They will squeeze into the libraries or the hospital waiting rooms.  Transportation officials will become frustrated that more people will be holding signs at the freeway exit ramps.  There will be more people panhandling and sleeping on sidewalks.  Tensions will rise at the Atlanta City Council meetings urging relief from people trying to squeegee cars downtown or selling anything and everything to get enough money to find housing or find transportation to some other place.  Out of fear and a misunderstanding of the problem, the public and media will demand action.  Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression will win the day.  The elected officers will be forced to react with policies that transform the police into guards of orderly conduct.  Atlanta will overturn common sense, and will become colder, meaner and poorer.  The cradle of the Civil Rights movement will be transformed into the Capital of the Intolerance Movement.

Should we demand the MLK Freedom Center be relocated to a more appropriate city where there is not this intolerance of the impoverished? I understand that the judge was tired of this long complicated acrimonious court case.  I understand he was angry with the shelter throwing this hail mary, but why shut down the facility in six months?  How about ordering the City or the United Way to offer space to everyone in need within the city limits?  Under a court order to provide housing, shelter or a safe place to everyone who shows up at the door of City Hall that would force a compromise by both parties who were appearing before him.  There is no way that the shelter would close if the bottom line for the court was concern for those who need a place out of the sun or out of the rain in Atlanta. 

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