The city of Atlanta may have finally come up with a plan to close what many consider to be one of the city’s biggest and most dangerous eyesores — the Peachtree and Pine homeless shelter.
In an off-the-cuff Q&A session Thursday at the City Club of Buckhead Mayor Kasim Reed said before he leaves office he plans to use eminent domain to take control of the shelter and convert it into a state-of-the-art centrally-located police and fire facility that would help in the response and prevention of domestic terrorism.
The shelter would be shuttered and the homeless population would be dispersed to smaller facilities around the city, Reed said.
“I am going to do everything in my power to close it before I leave office,” Reed said.
Anita Beaty, head of the Task Force for the Homeless, which runs the shelter, said there is nothing strategic about her location, adding that a police station and fire house are both nearby.
"We don’t take anything that the mayor says about our building lightly,” Beaty said. “However that is a nonsensical. There is no reason to take that building.”
No timetable or funding plan was discussed at the meeting – the mayor was responding to a question during a Q&A – but Reed has a little more than a year left in office.
But as he starts to build his legacy as his term ends in 2017, Reed said he is confident that the courts —which would need to approve the takeover — will agree with him.
Reed said his legal staff has not found an instance where a city has been the denied the use of eminent domain when they have tried to build a police or fire station.
“I’m going to make the moral argument that (the homeless) people are going to be treated better,” Reed said. “I am going to make the operational argument that in this day and age, my officers need to be able to get anywhere in the city rapidly. We are going to make a very compelling case to the court that in the current global environment, this is a must for a major American city.”
While Reed added that closing the shelter, which routinely houses around 400 people a night, would allow for the homeless population to be spread out and better cared for, Beaty said people who have been against the shelter have never offered any clear solutions.
“He always says he has a plan, but that has not happened in all the years he has been the mayor,” Beaty said.
Atlanta and the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter have been in an uneasy marriage for years.
The massive shelter, which sits on Peachtree Street on the edge of downtown is often teeming with homeless men and women hanging outside. Upwards of 1,000 people can sleep there nightly, although the number usually hovers around 400. Between 2006 and 2014 three separate outbreaks of tuberculosis were reported at the shelter.
Beaty and the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless has been fighting foreclosure and eviction since 2010. They are due in court on Oct. 3 over an ownership dispute.
"And we expect to go to court and win," Beaty said.
Across America, as the threat of terrorism increased, cities are not asking if, but when. This summer alone, 49 people were killed in an Orlando nightclub, while five police officers were later gunned down in downtown Dallas.
Two weeks ago in Nice, France, 84 people, mostly tourists, were mowed down by a truck. It was the third terrorist attack in France in 16 months.
Terrorism expert Anthony F. Lemieux said those events, as well as the ongoing threat of terrorism hitting a major city, has police departments and officials rethinking how they deploy strength and manage resources.
“In some of these, like where you have an active shooter, you need to be able to respond quickly and that does require a specialized response,” said Lemieux, who directs the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University.
Reed said the facility would also house SWAT and feature a helipad.
Reed said theoretically, units from the facility — which offers easy access to the Downtown Connector, as well as major intown thoroughfares like Peachtree Street, Piedmont Road, Juniper Street, North Avenue and Ponce De Leon — would be able to get anywhere within the Downtown-Buckhead corridor in under 14 minutes in the event of an emergency.
“Under the current ISIS threat, if you have an individual who is ISIS-motivated and radicalized, they only have one mission and that is to kill as many people as possible. And they have no plan of living,” Reed said. “That means it is my obligation as the leader of this city to eliminate this threat as rapidly as possible. An ordinary police precinct is not the tool that I need to address that kind of threat.”
Atlanta Police Department spokesman Sgt. Warren Pickard said the city’s SWAT Unit is currently housed “approximately 12 miles from the heart of Midtown.”
“I think we all can agree that the ability to respond quickly will significantly mitigate any loss of life in such an incident,” Pickard said. “Once we factor in geographical hazards and obstacles such as traffic and construction, the SWAT Unit response time could be significantly impacted. We think the Mayor’s proposal is prudent.”