By Maria Saporta
Papa loved Anita and Jim Beaty.
When Papa — I.E. “Ike” Saporta — was alive, he found a common ground with the Beatys — a dedication to helping those less fortunate.
Papa always fought for the underdog — willing to take on the status quo when he believed in a cause — and housing the poor was one of his core beliefs.
Today the Beatys have become one of the most controversial couples in Atlanta — serving as the steadfast leaders of the Task Force for the Homeless. They have taken on the City of Atlanta, Central Atlanta Progress, “competing” social service organizations that serve the homeless as well as numerous civic and business leaders.
The Beatys have taken their fight into the courts, filing lawsuits against several entities, accusing that there has been a conspiracy against the Task Force to prevent it from receiving federal and local grants as well as private contributions so that it could operate the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta.
The building, which the Task Force had been able to buy through the generosity of one its top backers — B Wardlaw in 1997, went into foreclosure in 2010.
Since then, the Task Force basically has been squatting in the Peachtree-Pine facility while it has been hoping the courts would rule in its favor.
But after years of legal challenges, the Task Force is running out of time. Recent court rulings have ruled against the organization on just about every point — saying it has to pay more than $147,000 in delinquent water bills and that it needs to vacate the building.
Following this story over the years has been painful — a situation that did not have to end this way.
In its early days, the Task Force was primarily an advocate for the homeless — organizing protests during high profile situations, hoping to shine the spotlight on its cause.
Papa, a citizen activist, admired the Task Force and the Beatys for their courage to take on the powers that be and for making sure that the needs of the poor were not forgotten.
Then when the Task Force was able to buy an attractive downtown building thanks to Wardlaw’s generosity, the organization’s role shifted from one of advocacy to one of being a provider for the homeless.
The shelter quickly became a lighting rod downtown — a place where the homeless gathered day in and day out — becoming a place that many considered as an unfriendly environment for tourists and residents.
Papa passed away in November, 1998 — and it is hard to say how he would have felt about the Beatys as operators of a homeless shelter.
But what I do know about Papa is that he believed in the community table as a place to resolve differences and implement positive solutions.
As one of the anchors of the Atlanta Housing Forum, which met once a month at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Papa sought to galvanize public and private forces to help improve the city’s ability to house its poor.
Unfortunately, the Beatys and the Task Force did not take that approach.
Early on they believed that city and community leaders wanted to put them out of business, and they became further and further isolated in Atlanta’s social service community.
Some of Atlanta’s most dedicated community leaders, many of whom were long-time supporters of the Task Force, began to distance themselves from the organization — uncomfortable with both its confrontational tone as well as its shortcomings in operating a shelter.
One could make a chicken-or-egg argument. Did the Task Force ignite the divide with the rest of the community, or did the community turn against the Task Force.
Either way, there was a disconnect. And numerous attempts by several different groups failed to find a common ground where there could have been a unified effort to help the homeless.
In fact, some of the accusations became more and more outlandish. I remember being told that the Task Force believed the downtown business community, the City of Atlanta, and Atlanta’s United Way were trying to rid the central city of African-American males.
Did the Task Force not realize that the president of Atlanta’s United Way was an African-American male? Hadn’t City Hall had an African-American mayor since 1973? Didn’t the Atlanta business community have one of the best track records of working on sensitive race relations compared to other U.S. cities?
As I said earlier, this has been a sad situation to watch over the years. Somehow, the Beatys have been convinced that everyone has been out to get them, and that has ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Could there have been a different outcome? Absolutely.
Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) on lawyers and lawsuits, those funds could have been spent on the very people that needed it the most — our homeless citizens who have a wide array of needs that must be filled through a broad-based community effort.
Imagine how much healthier it would have been for the homeless and the community at large if the Task Force had been a willing partner rather than a confrontational opponent.
If Papa were alive today, my guess is that he would still love Anita and Jim Beaty. But he too would be disappointed by the way the Beatys have made the rest of the community an enemy rather than a friend.