Academic journal article Policy Review

Atlanta's Other Olympians

Academic journal article Policy Review

Atlanta's Other Olympians

Article excerpt

In the late 18th century, Catherine the Great's favorite field marshal and reputed lover, Grigori Potemkin, built phony villages one block deep throughout Russia's Black Sea provinces to give the tsarina a false sense of the region's prosperity. Two hundred years later, cynical denizens of Atlanta's poorest communities might wonder if the Olympic stadium and the surrounding Olympic village amount to a modern Potemkin village.

Like any Olympic host, Atlanta is putting on its best face for its visitors. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games is spending $1.7 billion and employing 99,000 workers to show the world the best of Atlanta and America. Indeed, the underwriting of Atlanta's expenses by home-grown corporate powerhouses such as Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola demonstrates one of Atlanta's greatest strengths: As one of America's entrepreneurial capitals, Atlanta is a thriving commercial center. A bastion of black enterprise, the city also boasts many distinguished universities and the world-champion Braves baseball franchise.

Like most American metropolises, however, Atlanta also suffers from staggering urban blight. With 27 percent of its overall population, and 43 percent of its children, living in poverty, Atlanta rivals cities like Newark, New Jersey, as a center of decay and degradation. Forty-two percent of its households are headed by single women. Of America's 100 largest cities, Atlanta ranks second in its rate of violent crime.

Many of the organizations charged with battling these social scourges have bungled. Take The Atlanta Project (TAP), the multi-million-dollar nonprofit founded by Jimmy Carter four years ago to organize and stimulate 20 of Atlanta's most depressed communities. An internal audit of the organization's activities, released in January 1995, criticizes TAP for cultivating little input from the communities it serves, imposing cookie-cutter solutions from a bureaucratic central office, and focusing too much of its resources on small feel-good events like community clean-ups. TAP has faltered so badly that it recently eliminated all of its 89 full-time positions as part of a major restructuring effort. TAP's greatest achievement to date: consolidating application forms for social services from 64 pages to 8. All of this for $33.6 million.

If TAP typifies the flashy, top-down approach to community renewal, what follow are stories about the squads of private agencies engaged in a bareknuckled bout with poverty, homelessness, and crime. Unlike many nonprofits serving America's cities, these are not publicly funded extensions of government agencies. Nor do they receive the fanfare of an Olympic event. A tour of some of these ragtag, innovative organizations, each the product of dedicated citizenship, reveals what works in easing urban pathologies--one person, one family, one neighborhood at a time.

Victory for the Homeless

Homelessness is one of Atlanta's most persistent social problems. Task Force for the Homeless, an Atlanta nonprofit that runs a hotline for the homeless, received requests for shelter from about 24,000 individuals last year alone--a thousand more than in the previous year and two thousand more than in 1993. "We need folks who come at the homeless problem from a tough-love approach," argues Russ Hardin, of the Atlanta-based Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, which gave $3.9 million last year to organizations fighting homelessness.

They don't get much tougher than the church-based Victory House at 979 Boulevard SE, run by pastor Craig Soaries. Though it's the only shelter in Atlanta, according to Task Force, that admits people while they're still high--most of its residents are alcohol or drug abusers--they don't stay that way for more than an evening. The pastor's detoxification program is simple: Anyone who expects to receive Victory House's assistance must quit cold turkey.

The men's regimen has the feel of a boot-camp. …

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