Anita Beaty rallies the crowd at the corner of Peachtree and Pine Streets during a protest about foreclosure issues at the homeless shelter in Atlanta on May 13, 2010. (Vino Wong / vwong@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: A big check for Atlanta’s Homeless Maven to go away

Anita Beaty feels cheated.

The fiery maven of Atlanta’s underbelly, innkeeper for the unwanted, believes the city’s unfeeling Powers That Be were let off the hook.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photo: AJC

Beaty’s old organization, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, which she headed since the Reagan Administration and left this year, last week settled a lawsuit, one that accused those who pull the strings in Atlanta of underhandedly conspiring to close the massive shelter at Peachtree and Pine streets that she has run since 1997, one that routinely housed 500 people a night.

The accused entities will pony up a reported $9.7 million for Beaty and her shelter to go away. But those who were left running the Task Force inked the deal against her wishes. They say it’s the best deal possible under the circumstances. They are probably right.

Still, that doesn’t matter. She wanted her day in court. She wanted a public forum to shine light on how backroom deals get cooked, to show the official antipathy against the powerless. And especially, she wanted to keep that building.

The widespread view in town is she harbored crazies, drunks and unwashed louts. That she pointed an accusing finger at critics, calling them racists or uncaring. That she drove wedges between her organization and others. That she pushed away good people because of an unwillingness to do it any other way than hers.

Some of that is also true. Probably even a lot. But there really has been a crusade to shut her down, an effort that started even before she took over the shelter. The building sits on Atlanta’s premier street and straddles real estate between Midtown and downtown. It’s an awkward location that puts Atlanta’s ugly problem right there on the city’s doormat.

The pint-sized, 75-year-old grandmother won’t tiptoe away. She said she will write her unlikely story, do some painting (she’s pretty good) and advise organizations that deal with homelessness.

“I can tell people what not to do,” she said with a grin.

We talked this week in a coffeehouse in Grant Park, where she and her husband, Jim, raised many of their seven kids.

“I’m not angry,” she said. “I’m just so sad and disappointed. It’s so easy to ruin a nonprofit, all you have to do is to say something bad about their operations. That’s what they did. We had been so demonized. People needed to know about it.”

The Peachtree Pine homeless shelter was purchased by developers and will close August 28.

Why so adamant about the lawsuit?

“It was the only way we’d end up with the building,” she said. But any negotiation centered around the Task Force losing the building. That’s why she stepped down from her org earlier this year. She wouldn’t help dismantle her life’s work.

In 1996, not long after Beaty sued the city for arresting homeless people on the eve of the Summer Olympics, a do-gooder org called the Wardlaw Fund spent $1.3 million to buy the 100,000-square-foot building and turn it over to the Task Force. Even then, the Atlanta business community and the city’s “official” brain trust for the homeless opposed the move. Some said Beaty didn’t play well with others. Others said the shelter would fester in an area ready to gentrify.

Anita Beaty comforts Ezekiel Simmons, 5, as she confers with staff at the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless on November 7, 2013. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Later, those opponents made their feelings known to government and private organizations that were funding the shelter. They said she didn’t demand that those staying at Peachtree-Pine behave. That the denizens could keep on their destructive paths and always find a pillow there.

So, the money dried up. In 2005, the shelter received $1.6 million in grants and donations. Four years later, it was $355,000.

In the lawsuit, the Task Force contended that city officials, along with Central Atlanta Progress (a nonprofit set up by business to tout downtown), Emory University (which runs a hospital across the street) and others were the conspirators.

They’ve all denied being part of a cabal. Beaty was her own worst enemy, they said. That, too, is true.

The shelter foundered without funds but stayed open through Beaty’s force of personality and an army of homeless volunteers. The shelter’s water was to be cut off because of a $600,000 water bill. Silent benefactors paid it. The mortgage wasn’t paid and a judge ordered eviction, only to have it stalled by litigation. Tuberculosis was tracked to the shelter but that, too, died down.

Finally, last year, Mayor Kasim Reed declared he would wage eminent domain to close it and create a Ninja police station with helicopters and SWAT teams.

The defendants’ lawyers have chipped away at many Task Force contentions in court rulings. But a state Supreme Court ruling assured Beaty a trial and that gave her, as they say in boxing, a puncher’s chance. The Powers That Be worried she might win and end up with that damn building!

And so a check will be written, although the terms are all hush-hush, as settlements often are. Debts will be paid, as will, naturally, the lawyers, too. There will also be enough left to fund an Anita-Beaty-free Task Force, which no longer owns the shelter.

Room No. 1, where around 400 bunk beds fill every night at the homeless shelter in Atlanta at the intersection of Peachtree Street and Pine Street. One cold December night in 2011, with temperatures in the low 30s, Room No. 1 quickly filled up with over 600 men. (Jason Getz / jgetz@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The 350 or so residents will be dispersed to other agencies, shelters and programs, the city says. Agencies that have been unable to meet the need will now have to step up.

Peachtree-Pine has long been the embodiment of Atlanta’s unmet need for emergency shelter for the homeless. Often, on blustery nights, the old brick warehouse will house 600, 700 or 800 men and scores of women and kids.

Last fall, I visited the facility, opened a door and tripped on a mat placed on the hallway floor. A startled mother with two small children glanced up from the mat. She apologized. To me. For almost kicking her kid.

The sight screamed of a system falling down. On this night, women and children — probably 75 of them — had no other place to go, along with maybe 500 men. The ability to accept troubled families in a walk-up fashion barely existed elsewhere in the city, even though this problem was nothing new.

Problem ain’t going away. Let’s see how the city steps up.

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