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Solving downtown's homeless problem begins with taking the red pill

Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter is the root of downtown's image problem

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A good friend will be in Atlanta on business this weekend, and he asked me to locate an establishment where he, I, and several real-estate industry types could watch the Alabama-LSU collegiate football contest.

I began ciphering. Because identifying a suitable environment requires a bit of something I've come to call "downtown algebra."

Is said establishment reachable by MARTA? If yes, that's good. I like MARTA, despite its perception locally. Oooh, but will the itinerary put us on a train at night? Yes, so MARTA is out. Have you tried to exit the Peachtree Station at night? Or, hell, during the day? It feels like the opening scene in a horror movie: the sound of your heels clicking, echoing through empty hallways seemingly a mile underground, with never-ending escalators designed by some Stephen King fan whose office is filled with Escher prints and toy guillotines.

Is the location walkable? My first week in town I stayed across from the Ritz for a week at the Ellis Hotel on Peachtree Street, and I walked all around the northwest end of downtown. But what if we had to travel north up Peachtree? That was a problem. Because that route up Peachtree to Pine Street was loaded with a unique type of homeless person: cracked out, angry, aggressive. That is the dichotomy of the downtown homeless issue. On one hand, there are thousands of homeless people working with outreach organizations, desperately trying to transition to more stable lives. And here, in this small but important section of downtown, hostile men and a few women wait near hotel entrances, camped out like bears waiting for salmon at the falls. When I left for the airport at 4 a.m., I saw not one but three people in the street or on street corners, each rocking like a metronome, obviously going through withdrawal.

In large part this is why, when I moved to Atlanta two weeks later, I didn't settle downtown. The overly aggressive homeless overshadowed every great thing about my stay.

It didn't take much research to identify the root of the problem: Peachtree-Pine's homeless shelter is where many of those super-aggressive homeless call home. And the shelter's culture of unaccountability obscures the work being done by other service organizations to help the majority of homeless people who want to transition and become part of the livable fabric of downtown.

Leo wants to know what the hell I'm up to, and I am quick to tell him. Leo is 6-foot-4 and stands ramrod straight. He has an easy smile, but he emanates an unmistakable "do not fuck with me" vibe.

"I'm meeting Kevin here," I say. "Here" is in front of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where weekday mornings hundreds of homeless queue in the shadow of the Capitol, waiting for a sandwich and hot coffee. Leo helps run the morning meal program and works security at the church on Sundays. Kevin Spears works next door, for Central Outreach & Advocacy Center, the nonprofit arm of Central Presbyterian Church that helps the poor and homeless. I'm here to see how the various church- and government-run agencies minister to those in need. "I'm here to look at the Shrine," I say, "and Central OAC, and the Gateway and others, and talk about Peachtree-Pine's homeless center, and how—"

"Maaan," Leo says, shaking his head. "Why you wanna put us in with that hot mess?" I don't have to ask which shelter he's talking about. "You see how we do it here. Everyone in line is waiting patiently, respecting each other. I don't put up with foolishness. You want to act up, you know where you can go."

Spears arrives and Leo takes us inside to see the day's sandwiches being prepped (the food is donated by Starbucks and Publix, among others). That week, The Shrine will distribute 1,000 meals, and an additional 500 will receive a sit-down dinner on Saturday. Deacon Bill Payne, the church's outreach director, arrives and shows us the room filled with hundreds of blankets to distrubute as temperatures drop.

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