25 years of poverty vs. power

Occupy Atlanta was recently evicted from Woodruff Park, the Atlanta Housing Authority’s CEO was evicted from her job and the Task Force for the Homeless is perilously close to being evicted from its Peachtree-Pine building. These three local events share historical roots and are part of an ongoing 25-year drama that is part soap opera and part tragedy.

The local linkage provides a vivid history lesson on poverty, low-income housing and, at times, abuse of power by Atlanta’s elite. It also takes us on a circular journey back to the late ’80s, when Woodruff Park served as a daily gathering place for vulnerable and homeless people. While clearly not the right place for such a facility, Woodruff Park was allowed to fill that missing role as an outdoor day shelter complete with medical care, job assistance and other human service offerings.

Homeless advocates, business leaders and city officials all agreed that a better solution was needed. The Task Force for the Homeless, founded by Anita Beaty and others after a rash of tragic street deaths in 1981, offered an answer. The task force miraculously ended up purchasing the long-vacant Peachtree-Pine building, next to a hospital, in a neighborhood where homeless services had historically been provided. Over the next 16 years, the task force would provide more than 2.7 million unit nights of sleep, housing more than 50,000 different people, and feeding and helping thousands more.

Around the same time, Atlanta, with one of the country’s largest and most mismanaged public-housing infrastructures, set out to remake and gentrify its housing stock. Under Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover, Atlanta systematically wiped out 3,700 low-income public housing units, displacing 10,000 vulnerable individuals and families, and transformed a deeply damaged set of public assets into nicely renovated middle-income housing. For those able to stay in their units, it was a blessing. For those given one-year Section 8 housing certificates and ushered on their way, it was a very different picture, especially for the elderly cast out of their support systems. Even more shocking, the Atlanta community watched this epic transformation — or land grab, depending on your perspective — with few questions, public hearings and general apathy.

The task force, now owners of a mammoth but unfinished building, immediately opened its doors and took out a now-infamous $900,000 loan to begin renovations. Record numbers of men, women and children flocked in, clearly substantiating an unmet need. A well-orchestrated plan to bring in service providers from the Atlanta nonprofit community was thwarted by then-Mayor Bill Campbell. Contentious statements from the chairman of the Woodruff Foundation, who said that the Peachtree-Pine building should serve a “higher and better use,” also reflected the Atlanta power structure’s attitude at the time.

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The battle lines drawn in 1996 have now escalated into a full-fledged legal war. With the loss of so much public housing, low-income Atlantans have few choices and little hope. With the possible loss of the Peachtree-Pine shelter, homeless people may once again need to use Woodruff Park as a refuge, perhaps standing shoulder to shoulder with Occupy Atlanta, perhaps to die once more on our streets.

History tends to repeat itself, and Atlanta, once heralded as the next great city, again may prove it is not up to the task.

Bob Cramer was chairman of the Task Force for the Homeless for 14 years.

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