By Maria Saporta
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves visited the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter on Friday, Aug. 14, when he was given a personal tour by operator Anita Beatty, director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless.
Eaves wanted to see for himself the condition of the facility and whether it was following Fulton County’s protocols to test its clients for tuberculosis.
After the tour, Eaves said it was not as bad as he had thought it would be, and that the facility is meeting the TB protocols.
But even after a pleasant tour of Peachtree-Pine, Eaves was not convinced.
To Eaves, the Peachtree-Pine facility is “a big monster building” that reminded him of a warehouse for the homeless.
“Is this big warehouse approach effective?” Eaves asked himself. “Can better services be provided to the homeless population other than having a big warehouse approach? I would say: ‘Absolutely yes!'”
For years, if not decades, several attempts have been made to shut down the Peachtree-Pine shelter – usually with the argument that homeless were not being well served in that facility
Yet all those attempts have failed.
The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, a nonprofit headed by husband-and-wife team: Anita and Jim Beatty, has always managed to hang on. It even lost ownership of the building, but it has managed to stay put thanks to numerous lawsuits.
Now Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is the latest leader to enter the fray. Last week, in a talk to the Commerce Club, Reed said he wanted to shut down the facility – perhaps through eminent domain – and put a police and fire station at that location. The reason he gave was that Peachtree-Pine has been identified as health hazard given that previous cases of TB had been traced back to the shelter.
But there is no certainty Reed’s approach will work any better than previous efforts.
What is probably most significant is the fact that the mayor said he has been meeting with Chairman Eaves to discuss ways to address the homeless situation in the city and county.
It is no secret that up to now, Reed and Eaves have not gotten along. Even when there are issues related to a joint city-county authority, the mayor has called the shots – often without consulting Eaves or other county leaders.
So now two really significant moves are about to happen – both of which could be sealed by mid-September.
Eaves is recommending that the City of Atlanta and Fulton County form a bi-jurisdictional agreement to serve the homeless.
“I told the mayor we should work toward re-establishing a partnership – a bi-J,” Eaves said. “The city can’t do it by itself. It’s a lot more effective if the city and the county are joined at the hip. If the city and county are partners, we would be in a better position to get federal funding from HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).”
The second major move is that the city and county have been working to provide a new homeless shelter – for about 150 men – at a county-owned facility on Jefferson Place in northwest Atlanta.
The facility would not replace Peachtree-Pine, which the Task Force has said often serves between 300 to 500 people a night. But it could be part of a solution to better serve the homeless.
As currently envisioned, the county would spend about $1 million to repair the Jefferson Place building, including putting in a new roof. Then the county would lease the building to the city, which in turn would contract with a private entity to run the homeless facility.
After having toured Peachtree-Pine, Eaves said: “I just believe that smaller places would be more effective.”
Eaves envisions having several small shelters to avoid concentrating hundreds of homeless people in one place. He also believes that the smaller shelters should have “wrap-around services” for the residents so that they can receive the help they need.
But the ultimate goal would be to find more permanent housing options for those who are currently homeless.
“Frankly at this point I want to do what we can to serve our citizens better,” Eaves said. “Can we find another area where the homeless could be better accommodated? Can there be more of a decentralized approach?”
One issue is that Peachtree-Pine has an open door policy – letting the homeless stay there with few conditions. Unlike other shelters, Peachtree-Pine may not probe clients to find out if there is an outstanding warrant for their arrest.
“An idea of a low-barrier shelter with a robust set of services for the types of people who are going to Peachtree Pine has been a topic of conversation for awhile,” said Milton Little, president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta. “There needs to be a facility for people with a low barrier to entry but with comprehensive services.”
Over the years, United Way and other nonprofit partners have developed plans to house the homeless should Peachtree-Pine have to close. Little said the goal is to provide a “rich array of services that transition the homeless into housing.”
Jack Hardin, an attorney who serves as co-chair of United Way’s Regional Commission on Homelessness, pleased with the recent progress. “The funding communities are looking for big ideas. The point-in-time counts (of the homeless) show we are doing the right things and making progress in reducing the numbers. New programs and new ideas are making promising progress.”
So where does that leave Peachtree-Pine?
Eaves said he would like to have open conversations with Anita Beatty and leaders of the Task Force to explore ways to work together.
‘Maybe it’s worth taking another approach – diplomacy,” Eaves said. “We should explore alternative ways to serve the population, and we should definitely work with the Task Force. I believe Anita Beatty is interested in more effective ways to address the needs of the homeless.”
When it comes to building a relationship with the Task Force, maybe now is as good a time as any After all, isn’t everyone tired of all the legal maneuvers and lawsuits – especially when those efforts take away from people working together to solve the issues related to the homeless.
Eaves acknowledges he may be naive. But he has been able to open a door with Mayor Reed. Maybe he can do the same with the Task Force.
“I’m prepared to work even more collaboratively to access federal dollars to address these issues more comprehensively,” Eaves said. “This cannot be solved in a unilateral way. It’s got to be collaborative.”