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City withdraws support for homeless shelter

Atlanta's largest shelter may lose significant funding



The city's largest homeless shelter may lose a significant portion of its funding in a decision that shelter operators call an attempt to displace the poor from downtown Atlanta.

After all, why would the 95,000-square-foot, privately owned facility – operated by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless in the shadow of the Fox Theatre, on the tourist-heavy corner of Peachtree and Pine streets – not be recommended for federal funds for the first time since the city and county started making those recommendations?

Task Force Director Anita Beaty describes the decision of the Tri-Jurisdictional Collaborative on Homelessness (referred to as "Tri-J"), composed of appointees from Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, as just another jab at the city's down-and-out.

"The city has taken the direction from the downtown business community that the redevelopment of downtown depends on clearing poor and homeless people out of the way," Beaty says. "In some ways, we are perceived as an obstacle to that."

Neighbors and some politicians, however, accuse the shelter of not doing enough to curb crime that they believe is linked to the throngs of homeless men who occupy the blocks surrounding the massive building.

"People are not really tolerating the crime that comes from Peachtree and Pine," says Kwanza Hall, who represents the neighborhood on Atlanta City Council. "I've never seen it this bad."

Hall says the value of the shelter property, which sits on prime downtown real estate, ought to be incentive to relinquish it. "With the amount of money that they could get for that building, they could invest in a facility that could really help people who need help," Hall says.

Rufus Terrell, owner of O'Terrell's Pub located a block from the shelter, claims to have interrupted a mugging by a perpetrator who came from the shelter. "You can't even go down Courtland Street behind the Task Force unless you're armed," he says. "I think it has absolutely destroyed the business in our neighborhood."

Debi Starnes, Hall's 12-year predecessor on City Council and Mayor Shirley Franklin's current policy advisor on homelessness, originally was an advocate for the Task Force. But she turned against the agency in the late '90s.

"We have a lot of good agencies in town that are doing really good work, but I would say Peachtree-Pine is the example of how not to do it," Starnes says. "It's too large, it's poorly managed and there's not enough effort to move people on to self-sufficiency."

She says her migration from the Task Force's model on how to deal with homelessness is a philosophical one.

"We're trying to get totally away from just the warehousing of hundreds of people for long periods of time and just giving them a meal and some clothes," Starnes says. "It's just not enough, and it enables them to stay homeless for extended periods of time."

Last month, the Tri-J gave the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development a prioritized list of local homeless agencies that should receive funding. The Task Force was ranked the lowest of 20 agencies – scoring 56 out of 100 points. The score is based on criteria such as the percentage of an agency's budget that's invested in housing and the percentage of homeless people who were moved to permanent housing.

In recent years, the Task Force had received one of the most sizable grants – roughly $340,000 – of any of the homeless agencies to split the approximate $10 million in annual HUD funding. The funds comprised about a fourth of the Task Force's budget.

Beaty has another explanation as to why the shelter wasn't recommended for funding. "HUD has not changed any of the criteria, so it isn't a matter of our not fitting any criteria," Beaty says. "It's a matter of a political hit."

Tensions between the shelter and the city have been brewing for more than a decade. Beaty and other members of the Task Force consider the Tri-J's decision an act of retaliation for the protest role they've taken against city policies – policies that Task Force workers believe contribute to the homeless problem.

"It's debatable whether this is a coincidence or not, but as 3,000 units of public housing are on the chopping block and the Task Force has taken a lead in some of the organizing and speaking out against that, we come up against this sort of political pressure," says Task Force Development Coordinator Jules Dykes. "It's hard to say, 'You guys are really the root cause of what we're trying to fight against,' and then, 'Oh, by the way, can you give us $300,000?'"

Beaty says the Task Force will continue to operate the shelter – and advocate for homeless issues – despite the potential loss of HUD funding for the 2008 fiscal year.

"They haven't succeeded in the past and they're not going to succeed now," she says. "We have a responsibility and an ability to operate the facility just as it is, for the next 15 years."

News intern Taylor Barnes contributed to the reporting of this story. 

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