The woman approaching is stooped and sunken-eyed, with a weather-ravaged face that hints she might be much younger than she looks. She carries a frayed backpack and when she speaks, it's in the beaten-down manner of someone accustomed to asking favors.
"Thank you, Miss Anita," she says, as she follows her subject along the sidewalk and through the side door of the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter. "You're always good to me, even when I stray."
Anita Beaty assures the woman she'll be taken care of and ushers her into a small lobby where other street people occupy chairs along the walls or gaze out windows.
"We're the first place people can come so they don't die on the street," explains Beaty as she sits down for an interview a few minutes later.
As executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, Beaty has run the city's largest shelter on the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets for more than a decade. White-haired and grandmotherly, her appearance belies her reputation as a relentless advocate for the homeless, and in conversation, she comes across as so soft-spoken and unrushed that you'd never guess this is someone whose world is unraveling.
Earlier this month, the city turned off the water at Peachtree-Pine, citing unpaid bills totaling more than $160,000. Beaty quickly persuaded a judge to issue a temporary injunction to restore service, but her agency must comply with a daunting payment schedule or the water goes back off.
While water is the most immediate of the problems facing the Task Force, it's far from the only one. It may not even be the biggest.
Last year, the Task Force lost the bulk of its state and federal grants, a move that has so far cost the agency nearly $1 million in anticipated revenue. And while the Task Force holds the deed on its 100,000-square-foot home four blocks south of the Fox Theatre, the 1920s-era building has been mortgaged at least once – and perhaps several times – over recent years. Then there are the dozens of other expenses associated with operating an enormous homeless shelter, such as electric bills, groceries, transportation, staff salaries and so forth.
Beaty insists her agency's not in peril – "The Task Force isn't going out of business or reducing services or doing anything differently," she says -- but she offers little in the way of evidence to back up this claim. For an organization whose reported annual budget has been in the neighborhood of $1.3 million, it seems doubtful that private donations alone, especially with the economy in such dire straits, could close the revenue gap left by the lost grants.
It's unknown how long the Peachtree-Pine shelter can remain open, but there are some who believe its eventual shuttering would be a boon to the surrounding Midtown neighborhood, to downtown businesses -- and to the very homeless people it claims to serve.
Former Task Force supporters, city officials and even fellow homeless service providers seem to be in general agreement that the Task Force's no-questions-asked approach to providing a sanctuary for street people is outdated and ultimately does more harm than good.
Bruce Gunter is co-founder and president of Progressive Redevelopment Inc., a Decatur-based group that develops and manages affordable housing projects, such as downtown's Imperial Hotel and the new Hope House, around the corner from City Hall. An early advocate of the Task Force who helped the agency obtain the Peachtree-Pine building, Gunter's support was short-lived once he reached the conclusion that Beaty was a better bomb-thrower than administrator.
"Anita is admirable in so many ways, but you can't be a homeless advocate and manage a homeless service center," Gunter says. "Those two jobs don't go together because you need public officials on your side; you can't bite the hand that feeds you."
Beaty, however, clearly relishes the role of righteous hand-biter. In two separate conversations, she cheerfully recounts a single incident she seems to view as the flash point of her agency's ongoing conflicts with City Hall and the downtown business community. It was 1994, and then-Mayor Bill Campbell was speaking at the re-opening of Woodruff Park, which had been overhauled in preparation for the Olympics. To protest a new law aimed at panhandlers, Beaty and other activists arrived at the event with a group of homeless men and women who shouted down the mayor and business leaders.
In attendance at the 1994 event was newly elected City Council member Debi Starnes. She now scoffs at the suggestion that community opposition to the Task Force is somehow payback for disturbing a ribbon-cutting.
"The culture of that agency and its management of that building is not one that helps people escape homelessness," says Starnes, who retired her Council seat three years ago and now serves as Mayor Shirley Franklin's homeless czar.