Downtown shelter fights for survival

Anita Beaty doesn’t look like a woman ready to relocate.

Forget the foreclosure notice on the homeless shelter she runs.

And never mind the longtime, ongoing campaign to close it.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said with a dismissive wave as she walked through the sprawling brick complex at Peachtree and Pine streets. “We’re not going to be closed.”

The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, headed by Beaty, operates the 100,000-square-foot shelter, which usually houses about 500 residents. Last month, a judge signed an order to evict the shelter after the Task Force failed to pay its mortgage. It also owes almost $250,000 in unpaid water bills.

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Next month, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall is scheduled to decide the shelter’s fate. He wants to know the state of the facility, the services provided, the number of residents and what would happen to them if they were displaced.

Grandmotherly in appearance, defiant by nature, the 69-year-old Beaty vows to fight to the bitter end for Atlanta’s biggest and most controversial homeless shelter.

Beaty contends she’s run headlong into a web of collusion by politicians, business leaders and non-profit agencies to bleed the task force of its funding, making failure inevitable.

Depending on whom you talk to, the shelter is either a lawless, ugly blot on the urban landscape or last-stop safety net for society’s castoffs. It has been at the vortex of a civic battle over homelessness since 1997, when Beaty moved her operation into the donated building.

The shelter, however, owed two mortgages. Beaty said she borrowed the money years ago after getting the building because the shelter was getting federal grant money for improvements but needed matching funds. The mortgages were purchased in January 2010 for $900,000 by a trust with ties to a Gwinnett County developer. Months later, the trust foreclosed on the shelter.

The prospect of Peachtree-Pine Center closing has thrilled many nearby residents, who blame the shelter for attracting crime and destitution to the downtown and Midtown areas.

“Everyone is relieved or excited that it is finally being shut down,” said Jeff Lam, who lives nearby and is president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. “They shelter the men but don’t do anything to get them out of their situation.”

That’s been a complaint for years — that the shelter simply “warehouses” the homeless, allowing them to come and go as they please and perpetually linger in their current state.

Even some who have resided there say the same thing.

“This is the bottom of the bottom here,” said Greg Tarver, who said he used to stay there but now has other lodging. “There ain’t no structured program. It’s enabling folks to do the same thing over and over.”

Beaty’s supporters say the shelter, which is said to house up to 1,000 during a deep freeze, is “too big to fail.” They say an army of fragile, confused and desperate men would spill out Atlanta’s streets with nowhere to go, many falling victim to the elements as winter approaches.

A leader of the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness said the organization has lined up a network of existing homeless shelters to accept 500 men in an emergency. If Peachtree-Pine is forced to close, said Jack Hardin, an Atlanta lawyer on the United Way commission’s board, the hope is the homeless will be able to stay in the shelter until they are placed in “alternative situations.” He figured that would take six months.

“But if the facility was closed precipitously, then we would have a more strenuous situation,” Hardin said.

Jesse Leon McKinney, who has slept at the shelter, described it as a “flop house,” but said that it’s needed. “There will be 700 or 800 people here tonight when it gets cold. They’ll come out of the woodwork.”

‘A safe haven’

A visit to the shelter during a recent weekday afternoon found maybe 150 men, some mentally ill, some not. Some sitting on metal folding chairs in a bay area, others milling around.

“This is the overflow. If they don’t have anything to do today, they can stay here,” said Curtis Motley, once a homeless resident of the facility who now oversees volunteers there. “It’s a safe haven. We try to keep them busy. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”

Motley is one of the resident volunteers who sleep in tidy apartment rooms away from the general population. He oversees clean up, maintenance and security at the center and, while on a recent tour, stuck his head in on a group of men painting a room where residents can earn a GED. He said the shelter’s substance abuse program saved his life, so he said he gladly throws his time into helping others.

There are a handful of others, like Valerie Dawson, who worked 12 years as a paid caseworker but has worked for nothing since funding dried up two years ago. “God and my good husband allow me to do this (unpaid)” she said. “I’m a minister, also. This is my calling.”

Beaty said she also doesn’t receive a salary. She gets $50,000 a year from a retirement fund from another non-profit organization she set up eight years ago.

The shelter increasingly relies on unpaid volunteers like Motley and Dawson who have taken on responsibility as the shelter’s funding has plummeted.

Tax records show that revenue for the shelter — from grants and donations — went from $1.6 million in 2005 to $355,000 in 2009. In fact, revenue plummeted nearly $900,000 from 2008 to 2009. Beaty said the most recent returns for 2010 will show about $250,000 in revenue plus about $300,000 donated from individuals to pay for the lawyers fighting their legal battles.

Task Force members say — and court evidence in a lawsuit filed by the group indicates — that the drop in revenue is due to a long on-going effort by business, non-profit and city officials to close the center. A 2006 email from the head of public safety for the Central Atlanta Progress, a non-profit organization made of business leaders, indicates the group brainstormed ways to close the shelter. “Want to go to the source of their resourcing and/or political support?” the email asked.

According to court documents, Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, had pledged $750,000 to the shelter and even stayed overnight to see it close up. Cathy, in a deposition, said he gathered 30 or 40 potential benefactors for the shelter “to leverage my contacts” to increase his support. Later, he said he was called by Horace Sibley, the then-head of the United Way homeless group. Cathy said he was told by Sibley in a later meeting that “there was inadequate remedial care given to the men who were staying there.”

Shortly after that meeting, Beaty said, Cathy stopped funding the shelter. In an interview, Cathy said Beaty “has a good heart,” but “it was unfortunate to learn this ministry is not as considerate of the community as it needs to be.

“But my hat’s off to them. They are dealing with the most difficult of people, some who have been turned away from other shelters,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Central Atlanta Progress said the group has no comment on the allegations in the lawsuit. Sibley could not be reached.

Beaty, when talking of the litigation, gets animated.

“We have irrefutable evidence of collusion,” said Beaty. “But evidence gets trumped by politics in Atlanta. They starve us, stop our finances, then they say, ‘You’re not paying your bills.’ It’s an incredible story that needs to be told.”

Former Atlanta City Councilwoman Debi Starnes, who served as Mayor Franklin’s point person on homelessness, has been Beaty’s nemesis for more than a decade.

The homeless at Beaty’s shelter have foundered, Starnes said, because of the “lax rules, lack of structure and no expectations on the residents.”

“It’s a huge disservice to them,” she said. “To just say ‘They have a roof over their head,’ is such an insufficient response.”

Atlanta businessman Bob Cramer has worked alongside Beaty for 25 years, 14 as task force chairman. He parted with the group last year, although he still supports it financially.

“We were working with 500 people a night and running a day shelter and, all the while, they were scheming and planning our demise” he said. “We did the heavy lifting in helping the poorest and all they can do is beat up Anita Beaty.”

Cramer looks forward to next month’s court appearance and hopes it’s not just a rote hearing to shut down the shelter.“We should get a full hearing on all the information we have flushed out,” Cramer said. “They’re stealing the building from us. Maybe that’s how it goes when you challenge the Atlanta power structure.”

Beaty said current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has pretty much stayed out of the fray.

Marvin Perkins, who has stayed at the shelter since July, supports Beaty. “It would have been closed years ago without her. When I get down, I know this place is always here for me.”

He said he has also stayed in the Gateway Center, a program set up by the former mayor to be the center of operations for providing services to the city’s homeless.

Gateway is set up in the old city jail and is meant to assess homeless people and place them in programs to get them off the street.

“I stayed in Gateway for six months,” said Perkins, who has a part-time job. “It’s nice. It’s a little jail cell, but you have your own room. They have programs for you. They try to get you do something. You have to be in school or in a work program. You can’t just go there and lay up like you can here.”

But Perkins quickly added he wasn’t disparaging Beaty’s shelter.

“This place is needed,” he added.

“It’s better than no place at all. If they take this place away, a lot of people will be bad off. They don’t know how to do anything better.”

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