Nights are getting brisk again and Anita Beaty, like Motel 6, is still leaving the lights on.
Beaty, the defiant and diminutive grandmother who runs the embattled homeless shelter at Peachtree and Pine streets, said business is picking up — despite, she says, the machinations of a cabal of civic leaders long intent on shutting her down. The old 95,000-square foot brick warehouse, which looms like a fortress, still takes in more than 500 homeless men, women and children each night.
Beaty and her organization, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, were set to get their day in court last week. Five years ago, the task force started a legal battle that begat the long-running lawsuit. The suit accuses Atlanta’s Powers That Be of colluding to strangle Beaty’s funding sources, foreclose on the building and cleanse the area of the decrepit denizens who are her clients. But the trial was postponed and is now set for February.
Even before she turned to the courts, Beaty had fought City Hall and feuded with critics for more than a decade.
“It’s time for the shenanigans of the power elite to be exposed,” she said last week in an interview at the shelter. “It’s a very powerful suit, with some shocking evidence.”
The task force’s attorney, Steve Hall, has amassed a myriad of emails, memos and depositions that, he argues, lay bare effort by politicians, non-profit agencies and business leaders to pull grants and donations from the shelter. Hall, a corporate litigator who did low-level volunteer legal work for shelter residents, became outraged as what he saw as well-organized collusion against the Task Force and has become somewhat of a zealot for the cause. In 2005, the shelter had about $1.6 million coming in. Now it’s perhaps $300,000, Beaty said.
The legal fight began in 2008 when the city shut off the shelter’s water for not paying its water bill. A judge stopped that. Months later, a “benevolent” trust, that Hall says is in cahoots with The Powers, bought the shelter’s outstanding mortgages, which totaled $900,000, and moved to evict the task force. In 2011, a judge signed an order to do just that, but a higher court said no dice, giving the shelter new life. Beaty figures the task force now owes almost $2 million.
The task force accuses Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown business coalition, of quarterbacking the effort to close the shelter. CAP’s president declined to comment for this story, and its attorney, who works for one of the city’s largest firms, did not return a call.
But neighborhood activist Peggy Denby is not shy about her feelings about Beaty and the shelter. She thinks the whole situation has moved a couple clicks past bizarre.
“They’re living (for free) in a place that somebody else owns; I wish I could do that,” Denby said. Two years ago, “we really felt they had run out of options. But magically, they keep coming up with something else.”
Twelve years ago, Denby helped start the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, in large part, she said, because of the crimes — car break-ins, burglaries, assaults, prostitution, drug cases — that emanate from the inhabitants of the Peachtree-Pine shelter. She criticizes the shelter for taking any and all who come and not making them live up to strict guidelines, enabling their self-destructive and often lawless behavior.
“Nothing has changed; it’s still a source of a lot of our criminals,” said Denby. “They are bad for the neighborhood and bad for property values.”
Denby scoffs at Beaty’s David vs. Goliath narrative. “People are afraid of them. They’ll sue anyone, or brand those who fight them as racist. No one wants to get sullied.”
Beaty chuckles at the characterization. “She’s a little hysterical,” she said. “We don’t make it rain. We’re accused of everything that happens.”
The most recent annual homeless count in Fulton and DeKalb found more than 2,000 people living outside, over and above the almost 4,600 in transitional housing or shelters.
City, business and non-profit leaders have rallied around the Gateway Center as Atlanta’s official answer to homelessness. Gateway, built in the old city jail downtown, has about 300 beds and it is more selective than Beaty. The idea is that Gateway, which has a $3 million annual budget, is attached to a myriad of programs aimed at getting people permanently off the street.
“Some (shelters) provide unconditional hospitality; others practice more of a tough-love,” Jack Hardin, an attorney who heads a downtown firm and chairs the Gateway Center. “Peachtree-and-Pine attracts all comers.”
Exactly, said Beaty. But in her view, the world needs both approaches: “We don’t compete with anybody — we’re batting cleanup.”
A conversation with Beaty is a disjointed affair, interrupted by her chatting with homeless people, aides, volunteers and callers on her endlessly ringing cellphone. It’s late afternoon, with a couple Atlanta police squads hanging around outside, watching the crowd, and a few men wandering Pine Street deciding if they were going to head inside for the night.
Up on the second floor, a noisy and cramped waiting room is filled with women sitting on metal folding chairs while their children cry, laugh, bounce a tennis ball or read. Walls bear a crinkling Obama poster and a small poster warning entrants that this is a “No Sag Zone,” a place where pants must be pulled up.
Beaty’s husband, Jim, says the shelter, like some of the mega-banks, is “too big to fail.” On freezing nights, the population sometimes swells to nearly 1,000 sordid souls, people who can’t go to other over-crowded centers. And those frigid days are returning.
With night descending on Peachtree-Pine, it’s time for the waiting room and a conference room to be filled with mats, transforming them into bedrooms for about 50 women and children. Gateway last summer quit taking women and children in its emergency center.