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Atlanta goes for the gold: and the poor get left in the dust.

The Olympic Games going on right now in Atlanta represent a major financial boon to the city's business community and civic leaders. "Atlanta has a chance it has never had since the Civil War to redefine itself and present an image it wants to project to the world, as opposed to the mind-set most people who come to the South bring with them," says Bill Crane, director of marketing and communication for the city's Chamber of Commerce. "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote Atlanta as a business mecca."

To prepare for the big event, the city has quietly swept the poor out of the way. Atlanta activists charge that thousands of poor people have been displaced from their homes, while the homeless are subjected to repressive measures that violate their civil rights.

Virginia McDey is one of the low-in-come Atlantans who found herself in the path of the Olympic money machine when it came rolling into town. Until May 13, McDey was one of several thousand residents of the Techwood/Clark Howell Homes, a group of buildings that includes the nation's first public-housing project. The project is located downtown, right across the street from Coca-Cola headquarters and the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology. Georgia Tech is home to the brand-new Olympic Village, which received some $40 million from the Olympic Committee and millions more from a state bond to build new dormitories, an aquatic center, and a central commons. McDey was forced to move so the housing project could be flattened and "revitalized" as part of the Olympic Village.

"I have been in the project for twenty-one years and it's home to me," McDey said the day before she vacated her apartment. "I've raised five kids here and I've never had a problem." McDey is still bitter about the city's drive to get rid of her and her neighbors. "They don't care where we go. They just want us out."

What has happened to the Techwood/Clark Howell Homes graphically illustrates Atlanta's priorities. When it opened in 1936, Techwood was the pride of the New Deal era. But by the 1980s it had become an eyesore for corporate Atlanta, largely because of overcrowding. Atlanta's selection as an Olympic city created the right political climate to level the project.

"Coca-Cola and Georgia Tech have wanted to get rid of the poor people in Techwood Homes for years," says Ed Loring, an activist with the Open Door Community, which serves Atlanta's poor and homeless. "The Atlanta Housing Authority let the homes deteriorate, and then the Olympic games came along and got the bulldozers going."

In July 1991 the Atlanta Housing Authority awarded a bid to PATH, a group of Atlanta developers, to redevelop the area around the housing project. PATH's plan called for the destruction of all on-site units and replacement with "mixed-income" housing, with only a small portion of units reserved for public-housing residents.

But residents were not about to accept the plan without a fight. They formed Tenants United for Fairness (TUFF), a vocal group that injected itself into the planning process for the future of Techwood/Clark Howell Homes.

TUFF successfully defeated the PATH plan. As a result of the group's efforts, the housing authority was forced to bargain with the residents and come up with a new plan, which was approved by the majority of residents. The new development plan includes more low-income units, and guaranteed replacement housing for everyone--either in the reconstructed project, or in a different area of the city. During construction of the new project, it also guarantees temporary, off-site replacement housing for people who are displaced. Three years later, however, residents charge that the Atlanta Housing Authority is dragging its feet.

The city gave residents Section 8 certificates to help cover the cost of new housing, but finding a suitable apartment has been difficult. Many landlords prefer not to rent to welfare recipients. Residents don't want to move into larger public-housing projects with higher crime rates, but their options are severely limited.

"They promised to find us replacement housing, but I've had to go out myself and try to find somewhere to live," says Willie Monroe, who has lived with her daughter in Techwood/Clark Howell for three years. Monroe moved to another project, Wells Court. "Wells Court is not what I wanted, but I have no choice. I'm being thrown out."

McDey and Monroe also complain that the housing authority has made life miserable for them. "They've cut off my water without telling me," says McDey. "We went two weeks without hot water. Police have come and kicked in our doors and terrified the people.... They're trying to make us move out quicker."

Police deny that they have harassed residents at the project. "We are unaware of any specific incidents of police harassment," says John Quigley, public-information officer for the Atlanta police department.

The Olympic Games have provided the justification for a whole lot of things the business community wanted to do," says Ed Loring of Open Door. "The central business district has been working to push the poor from the city center as a way to get conventioneers, tourists, and suburban white people to come downtown and spend their money. To do that, the corporate sector has had an agenda for some time."

That agenda, says Loring, included routine arrests and sweeps of homeless people. "The street sweeps intensified the closer we got to the games," he says.

"The crackdown is under way--we're being harassed twenty-four hours a day instead of ten," says John Buchner, a homeless man who has lived in Atlanta for the last ten years.

City officials and members of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games deny that the city has conducted street sweeps and intensified pressure on the homeless leading up to the Games. "From our perspective, we want to ensure that everyone who comes to the Games has a safe and happy experience, and we have to maintain the flow of pedestrian traffic," says Shirley Franklin, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Committee. "That doesn't mean we are going to try to displace anyone."

Activists counter that city nuisance ordinances have been used to arrest and detain homeless people to make the city look good for tourists. Atlanta began passing the ordinances soon after it was awarded the Olympics in 1990. The new laws prohibit people from being in vacant buildings, or sleeping in parks, on the grass, or on benches. It is even illegal for anyone to walk across a parking lot if his or her car isn't there.

Civic leaders concede that a $5-million renovation of Woodruff Park includes the installation of new benches with arm rests that are meant to keep people from lying down. Many of Atlanta's vacant buildings that were used by homeless people when shelters were full have been bulldozed to clear the way for Centennial Olympic Park and other construction projects.

"The closer we get to the Olympics, the more intense is the harassment," Robert Ferrell, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Union of the Homeless, said earlier this year. "If you look homeless, the police want to know where you are going, what you are doing, if you have an I.D."

The city is not allowing anyone to loiter downtown, says Charles Lewis, another homeless Atlantan: "They don't want people going back to their country after the Olympics and saying Atlanta has a lot of homeless."

Atlanta's treatment of its homeless population prompted the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty to name the city one of the country's five "meanest" cities for homeless people.

The ACLU of Georgia has filed suit challenging the constitutionality of Atlanta's parking-lot ordinance, and is considering suits against other ordinances that may violate freedom of speech, association, travel, and due process.

"The use of criminal law to sweep people off the streets who are different is unconstitutional," says Laughlin McDonald, director of the southern regional office of the ACLU. "The people who are going to be put in jail are people who are black, who can't spell, who look different ... people with a different status in the community."

Activists are not optimistic that things will get better for the poor in Atlanta when the Olympic Games are over.

"I haven't seen any trickle-down effect," says Timothy McDonald, pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church and chairman of the Olympic Conscience Coalition, an alliance of students, residents of housing projects, labor and religious leaders, and others who feel left out of the Olympic decision-making process.

McDonald says the estimated 97,000 new jobs created during the Olympics will be short-lived, and the estimated $4 billion in revenue generated by the games will not benefit low-income Atlantans. While the International Olympic Committee and Atlanta's corporate sector will make millions from the most commercial games in history, they will not provide any money to help relief organizations deal with the serious social problems that have plagued Atlanta for decades and that are being exacerbated by the Olympics.

"The economic boom will not continue after the Olympics," McDonald predicts. "The job market will be depressed and the unemployment will be high, as will the homeless population. It's going to put a tremendous burden on welfare groups at a time when financial support for their programs is shrinking."
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Title Annotation:Atlanta, GA gets ready for the 1996 Olympic Games
Author:Chepesuik, Ron
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:1552
Previous Article:The angel standing in the sun.
Next Article:Misrepresented: women fight harassment and the union boys' club.
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