On the first cold night of fall, I went over to the Task Force for the Homeless at Peachtree and Pine. Outreach coordinator Joe Houston took me to Room One on the second floor. It is a vast room stretching nearly half a city block.
Room One is filled with row after row of bunk beds, hand-me-downs from the old Fulton County Jail. There are about 150 bunks with nearly 300 men in the top and bottom beds. The room is bare with bright lights suspended from the 14-foot ceiling. Some of the men are trying to read paperback novels. Most of them are black. When trouble starts, as it did when I was there, a 7-foot white guy named Lloyd steps in and calms things down. Room One looks like a scene from Doctor Zhivago.
Houston told my man "Grasshopper" not to take a picture unless he was ready to run; a lot of people in Room One don't want their pictures in the paper. Grasshopper, also known as Darren Smith, was my cameraman for the night. He's a Brooklyn native who's been at the Task Force awhile and has moved from Room One into the nicer transitional housing. He's training to become a photographer among other things.
Houston also took me into the office area of the Task Force. More than 30 women, some of them with children, were sitting up straight in chairs. There was no place for them to lie down to sleep. They just sat in their chairs all night with the lights on.
Anita Beaty, executive director of the Task Force, told me that some of the women had been turned away earlier that evening from Gateway Center, the ballyhooed new facility with 300 beds to help address the homeless problem. Thirty of the beds there are for women and children. But all the beds are assigned to people already in the center's programs.
Gateway Director Vince Smith said the center operates a shuttle from 4-11 p.m. to various emergency shelters such as the Atlanta Union Mission's Women's Center and the Salvation Army. On Wednesday night, he said the center didn't turn away anyone, but that two women declined to take the shuttle. Smith said Atlanta still has a "great need" for emergency shelter for women and children. But the city shut the Milton Avenue shelter for women earlier this year.
In two weeks, the federal government stops paying to help the Katrina evacuees in our midst. Many of them will be on the streets, too.
"It'll be devastating," Beaty says.
As I looked in on the women sitting upright in the chairs at the Task Force last Wednesday night, one of them got up and stormed out. She was a sad-eyed, middle-aged blonde I've seen for years moping along Ponce de Leon, begging for money. The skin on her nose was red and raw. She went back out onto Pine Street and headed toward Ponce.
She's the kind of person Bernie Marcus had in mind when he said the success of his Georgia Aquarium depended on the city's ability to enact a tough anti-panhandling ordinance. The ordinance passed, and if the blonde does her begging in the "tourist triangle" downtown, the city's finest will throw her skinny ass in jail.
The next day, I went back. Grasshopper was in a coat and tie. He was filling out job applications at a job fair at the Task Force. Everybody cleaned up. Pentecostal beauticians from Beulah Heights Bible College came over the day before and gave haircuts and manicures to the job applicants. They even did the thing with hot towels wrapped around the guys' faces, like a spa. Blue balloons festooned the job fair tables.
This was the third job fair at the Task Force. Employment coordinator Valarie Lofton said 30 folks got jobs from the first one and 40 from the second. More than 200 applicants came through last Thursday.
The state Department of Labor was there. State agencies were talking about part-time jobs. The city's Workforce Development Agency had a table. Waffle House had a recruiter who wasn't allowed to talk to the media. United Parcel Service set up a table, offering seasonal part-time jobs paying $8.50 an hour -- more than three bucks above minimum wage.
UPS sent a vivacious recruiter, Denise Jones, who normally goes to colleges. She told the homeless job seekers they could apply online in a nearby room full of computers that were supplied by the Labor Department.
One of the applicants was John Mosby, 41. He was making $13.09 an hour, working 46 hours a week, in a warehouse before he got laid off. He said he was fortunate not to have a felony -- just a few bar fights -- so he could apply for a good job online. His dream is to operate heavy equipment. He finds day labor sometimes and sleeps in Room One.
"It gets a bit noisy at times until everything settles down, and then all you hear is snoring," Mosby says.
Grasshopper takes Mosby's picture with Jones and gives me the film.
Beaty, who has battled elements of the business community over the years, says the most important thing that can be done for the homeless right now is for the voters of District 12 to elect Derrick Boazman to City Council in his runoff election Dec. 6 against incumbent Joyce Sheperd. Boazman, a former city councilman, was arrested last summer protesting the panhandling ban.
"He puts his body, soul and career where his mouth is," Beaty says. "He supports the poor and homeless people."
Mayor Shirley Franklin has campaigned vigorously against Boazman. (Creative Loafing endorsed Sheperd in that race.)
"The Chamber of Commerce, Central Atlanta Progress, all of the downtown businesses don't want to see poor folks in the city," Boazman says. "They could have said we'll be more humane. But they just said we'll just lock the folks up and harass them until we can run them out of town."
I headed out of the Task Force, which was formed after 17 homeless people froze to death during one winter a quarter-century ago. I dropped off Grasshopper's film at Wolf Camera on North Highland. For some reason, the pictures he took for me didn't turn out, although he had some nice pictures of Turner Field on the roll.
When I came out of Wolf's, I was surprised to see the same blond woman I had seen the night before at the Task Force. She was walking down North Highland with a couple of plastic bags full of her belongings.
"Why'd you leave the Task Force last night?" I asked her.
She couldn't sleep, she said, and the other women were saying nasty things that upset her.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Sharon Coleman," she said.
"Where are you going to sleep tonight, Sharon?" I asked. She said she would probably sleep outdoors under a blanket along Ponce. The temperature was going down to 28 degrees.
She asked for money. She was crying. I gave her five bucks and told her to stay warm.
Blunders: I made a mistake in last week's column. Phil Gingrey is in his second term in Congress, not his first. I also wish I'd mentioned that another Atlanta attorney is running as a Democrat for secretary of state; his name is Shyam Reddy. He's with Kilpatrick Stockton and helped found the Red Clay Democrats.
Senior Editor Doug Monroe is a fifth-generation Atlantan. You can reach him at email@example.com.