Homeless Task Force chose to take on the community rather than seek common ground

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.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. mickeyd says:

    A very insightful column. I tried to work with the Beatys years ago because Manual Maloof asked me to, “Mike use your pr and go help those people, they need it”. So I met with Anita several times to try to determine how I could be helpful. It was clear even then that they felt the City and Central Atlanta Progress were out to demolish the building and move the homeless outside the downtown area. I nosed around and found while not all city and business officials were happy to have them downtown, none were advocating ending the shelter services. The leaders I talked with wanted to work out a solution to ensure the services continued only at another downtown location. I worked explaining this to Anita, but she would not budge. I finally had to report to Manual that I didn’t think there was much hope for a compromise on the Beaty’s part of the discussion and I moved on to another “civic works” project at Manual’s suggestion.

    It is unfortunate that 20 or so years later the situation remains the same with no resolution and as Maria points out hundred of thousands, if not millions have been spent on lawyers and such. Atlanta is a great city, raising national and international leaders. It solves problems as it goes forward and it must somehow solve the homeless problem, probably with an infusion of new leaders getting involved in the homeless issues. It is time for a change and Atlanta is great with change.

    Michael DowlingReport

    Reply
  2. PeggyPowellDobbins says:

    Maria, It is never ever, in my opinion and I imagine your father’s, proper to ‘blame the victim.’ I live a few blocks from Peachtree and Pine, across from Sun Trust and carry corner from Portman’s hopefully-it-will-survive iconic Hyatt. I see people who look pretty down and out every day. If they are white, and few are, I look more and more like them and frankly fear being shooed off when I venture out for a newspaper without devoting an hour and a half to “keeping up appearances.”

    You and I both know the Beatys are a thorn in the side of those charged with making Atlanta appear appealing to those with money to spend, as visitors and as investors. And we know the emotion sometimes experienced as guilt, sometimes shame, sometimes embarrassment that passing someone scrounging food from a trash can, sleeping on concrete evokes.MoOn reminded by that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ feeling to answer “which side are you on?” It’s the “what would Jesus do?” question that we can praise God prompted a new generation to Occupy Wall St and Atlanta on the side the beleaguered marginalized isolated bankrupted near irreparably broken Beaty’s stood determinedly on reminding prosperity Atlantans of impoverished Atlantans. Mergers make money and misery. The poor are with us. We should not be allowed to forget.Report

    Reply
  3. DougAlexander says:

    I appreciate Mike’s situation. When I was new to the City Council, I too thought that all it would take is some good dialouge and an open mind, but the Beaty’s let their own parionia about the city get in the way and it became obvious to me that I could not be of any help in the situation. I have always admired Debi Starnes’ efforts to engage the TFH 0 but that level of patience is rare.Report

    Reply
  4. winstonejohnson says:

    Thank you Maria, for this excellent analysis. I live at Peachtree and Seventh Street and a couple of years ago I had friends visiting from London. It was beautiful fall weather and they decided to walk downtown on Peachtree. As they got closer to the shelter they became fearful and turned around and came back.

    I try to avoid driving on Pine Street, and wouldn’t even consider walking by there on Peachtree or Pine, but sometimes it is the most convenient route. I can assure you that it is often scary because some of the people on the street there are very aggressive.

    My heart goes out to the people who need shelter, however, it seems that we as a society have decided to depend on charity instead of taxes to “take care” of problems like this. The problem is much deeper that homelessness, it involves addiction, mental health and countless other maladies that we refuse to deal with as a society. Most of the clients at the shelter need much more that just a roof over their heads.

    The shelter is a blight and will continue to keep anyone from investing in that part of the city. It should not be a frightening experience to walk from midtown to downtown.

    Winston Johnson

    AtlantaReport

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @winstonejohnson

      The problem also involves a certain mega-sized Northeastern city improving its homeless problem by shipping it out of their city, often via Greyhound bus, so that it becomes someone else’s homeless problem, a “solution” to which Atlanta has become the prime beneficiary as Atlanta is most often the number one choice for those exiled out of that city of all cities. Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      @winstonejohnson

      The problem also involves a certain mega-sized Northeastern city improving its homeless problem by shipping it out of their city, often via Greyhound bus, so that it becomes someone else’s homeless problem, a “solution” to which Atlanta has become the prime beneficiary as Atlanta is most often the number one choice for those exiled out of that city of all cities. Report

      Reply
  5. ChuckSteffen says:

    Maria Saporta has been reporting on the Task Force for many years. Sadly, she continues to toe the mainstream media line by framing the story as one of personalities. What she fails to understand is that the real story is not about Maria and Ike, or about Ike and the Beatys. Rather, it’s about fundamental differences over the proper response to homelessness in Atlanta. The positions taken by the Task Force over the years reflect its opposition to the Atlanta regime’s project of downtown revitalization. The regime envisions a service delivery system that not only pathologizes homlessness but also channels homeless people out of the downtown area to “dumping grounds” on the south and west sides of Atlanta. It also supports the enforcement of quality-of-life ordinances that effectively criminalize homelessness. Maria and her fellow reporters in the mainstream media might not agree with the Task Force’s critique of the regime’s redevelopment program. But they should at the very least acknowledge that the conflict between the Task Force and the city’s business and political elites is rooted in substantive matters of policy, not ephemeral matters of personalities.Report

    Reply
  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    That homeless shelter has been a goner for many years as the building that houses it sits on some very prime real estate on the city’s signature and showcase thoroughfare.

    Since the shelter operators were understandably paranoid and uncooperative as a result, it was just a matter of applying intense legal and financial pressure and waiting them out until they could no longer proceed any further legally and financially.

    The Beaty’s were fighting a losing battle from the start operating a shelter on what has the exponential potential to be some very valuable top-dollar real estate on Peachtree just off the Downtown Connector, a shelter that highlights a severe homeless problem that has become a very big and very visible embarrassment to the city of Atlanta as it grows into more of an international city that is held up to increasingly high standards.

    The Beaty’s have fought the good fight and now it’s time to see if there can be an amicable solution to a situation that was never likely to go their way, no matter how hard they fought.Report

    Reply
    • PeggyPowellDobbins says:

      @The Last Democrat in Georgia In re pine & Peachtree as real estate: driving down our iconic mainstreet, from the outside the shelter looks good, better than iysReport

      Reply
    • PeggyPowellDobbins says:

      @The Last Democrat in Georgia If driving the homeless out of the shelter at Peachtree and Pine were about realizing real estate value in a prime location, driving the absentee owner of the Medical Arts Building, which really and truly has been such a dangerous blight for so long, would be a much more civic and humane target for the attention of those employed to sustain, much less enhance the monetary value, the aesthetic value, and yes the safety of downtown Atlanta and its celebrated mainstreet. The shelter’s building is visually the most appealing along that stretch of Peachtree. Report

      Reply
      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        @[email protected]

        This is Atlanta, a town that is by developers, for developers. Driving the homeless shelter out of that building could only be about making way for future real estate speculation and redevelopment/development.

        It’s no secret that the shelter sits in a very prime location smack dab in the city’s plans for Atlanta’s version of a “Magnificent Mile”.

        A homeless shelter was no match for the well-financed powers-that-be insatiable thirst for profits.Report

        Reply
        • PeggyPowellDobbins says:

          @ The last democrat in Georgia

          I’m not suggesting that the shelter is not in a prime location, just riffing off your observation to note (admittedly sarcastically) that if “driving the homeless shelter out of that building” were “only .. about making way for future real estate speculation” doing something about the Medical Arts building ( a far bigger blight–and invitation to vagrancy and crime –on the Magnificant Mile) would be a more worthwhile use of the time and resources devoted to closing the shelter at Peachtree and Pine. Suddenly it occurs to me that “driving the homeless shelter out of that building could only be” successfully marketed in the name of “making way for future real estate speculation.” Driving the homeless people it shelters out of sight is, I contend, the stronger driving force, a force that is emotional and mean spirited. I cite it again, because blindness to this may be worse than blindness to the poor. Report

          Reply
  7. AliciaPhilipp says:

    Maria- This is the most balanced, accurate assessment I have ever read of a very troubling situation that endangers lives of homeless every day.Report

    Reply

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