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ATLANTA, Sep 29 2009 (IPS) - The largest homeless shelter in the southeast U.S., the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, has filed a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta claiming officials have undertaken a complex campaign to sabotage the shelter with the ultimate goal of driving homeless, mostly African American men off the streets of downtown.
While the situation in Atlanta may be an extreme case, homeless advocates say it is part of a national trend to push homeless shelters out of downtown areas and into the suburbs, where it is more difficult for homeless people to access services.
“There are cities that have really tried to marginalise their homeless. Some [cities] put their homeless out in industrial parks and some people go as far as to put them on an island,” Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told IPS.
“The city of Atlanta is just the most recent example of communities attempting to push homeless resources and services outside of the downtown community. In the past decade there have been examples in cities from St. Louis to Las Vegas,” Donovan said.
The Task Force in Atlanta serves up to 700 homeless men per night and provides day services to homeless women, including those with children.
It also assists numerous people whom other shelters will not serve; for example, the city’s favoured Gateway Centre only serves a limited number of people, and will only help homeless people who participate in one of their full-time programmes and will allow their information to be stored in a national database called Pathways.
Because the Task Force attempts to serve all the homeless people who cannot get help anywhere else – and to do so with increasingly fewer sources of funding – the shelter has become an easy target for people unfamiliar with the issues.
“We are moving away from the old model of sheltering and feeding homeless people, and moving to a model to try to get people out of being homeless,” A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, which represents the downtown business community, told IPS.
“This model of moving people out of homelessness is not something the Task Force aspires to. At its core, this is how they think: the more homeless they can shelter, the more resources they can raise,” he said.
“The facility is too big and the Task Force does not have the resources to manage it well. The overflow from the shelter, the people coming in and out, has led to all kinds of neighbourhood problems – crime rates in and outside the shelter are a problem. The loitering that takes place, it’s a real drag on the community,” Robinson said.
Task Force Executive Director Anita Beaty says there is no data showing a high level of crime in the immediate vicinity of the Task Force. Moreover, men staying at the shelter have a curfew, so they cannot be out on the streets at night.
Meanwhile, Debi Starnes, the homeless liaison for Mayor Shirley Franklin, accused the shelter in Creative Loafing magazine of warehousing people instead of helping them.
Advocates say this is an easy claim to make, seeing as how the shelter accepts everybody who needs help with few conditions, and will help them as much as possible even if they do not have as many resources as they would like.
“They simply ignore our reports that we can prove with names about the people we’ve helped find jobs – 1,500 people we’ve helped find permanent housing this year,” Beaty said.
“More often than not, [our shelter] is the only available emergency housing for men. Other shelters have moved out or closed. We get the overflow; the overflow can’t move on when there’s fewer and fewer affordable housing units to move into,” she said.
She added that in recent years, the city of Atlanta has torn down 3,200 units of affordable public housing, displacing 9,600 people.
“Seventy-seven percent of people [at the shelter] earn some kind of living, but can’t accumulate enough to get a place to live. You have to earn 15 dollars an hour [twice the minimum wage] just to live in a [one-room] efficiency in Atlanta at fair market rent,” Beaty said.
On Sep. 21, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville ruled against the city’s petition to dismiss the Task Force shelter’s lawsuit. The case will now go forward, with a trial expected to begin in February 2010.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the city of Atlanta to stop turning off its water; to stop making defamatory, untrue statements about the Task Force in the local media; to stop standing in their way of federal funds; and to stop approaching private donors and partners of the Task Force, which they said has resulted in cuts in private assistance to the shelter.
The Task Force has produced emails showing apparent collusion between the city and Central Atlanta Progress to generate negative press about the Task Force as well as strategising about how to close the shelter. Robinson told IPS he did not deny working with the city or speaking with the press to address his concerns about the shelter.
“This is about racism, and classism, and the planning of downtown to literally cleanse people who are supposedly not good for business,” Beaty said.
Beaty says the city’s efforts against the shelter began around the 1996 Olympics. The city’s efforts have increased in recent years, at the same time as the Task Force has opposed the city’s recent policies of banning panhandling downtown and destroying all remaining major public housing projects in the city.
First, the city cut off its own pool of federal Community Block Development Grant funding to the Task Force in 2007, costing the Task Force about 300,000 dollars to date. Then, Mayor Franklin wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asking the federal agency to cut off Emergency Shelter Grant funding to the shelter, which has cost the Task Force about 400,000 dollars to date.
Meanwhile, the Task Force alleges the city has approached at least three private donors and partners, essentially strong-arming them into not supporting the Task Force. While a document obtained by IPS lists the Jewish Federation as one agency threatened by the city, no official evidence has been made public yet.
The city has also shut off water services to the shelter twice: first in December 2008 and again in June of this year.
The city notified the Task Force it had forgotten to bill them for over eight thousand dollars in October 2008, according to the letter obtained by IPS. Despite numerous attempts by the Task Force to get the city to document what the charges are for, they have never received any documentation.
The shelter’s water was first turned off by the City in December 2008. At that time, the shelter sought a temporary restraining order, which Judge T. Jackson Bedford issued, preventing the City from turning off the shelter’s water as long as they comply with a payment plan.
The shelter did make several payments towards its outstanding water bills but fell behind again in April 2009, at which time the city shut off its water a second time. Again, court interference was required to get the shelter’s water turned back on.
Judge Bedford’s order also forbade the city from defaming the shelter in the press, or from standing in the way of the shelter getting private or public funds.
However, the Task Force now says the city has not even complied with the judge’s order. According to documents obtained by IPS, city officials held off on certifying the Task Force for this year’s pool of ESG funds, even though the shelter was eligible, until after HUD’s funding deadline had elapsed.
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