Atlanta homeless expect a rousting As Olympics draw near, advocates charge city with increasing arrests

July 01, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- In his eight years of being homeless in Atlanta, Tony Johnson says he has been bundled up like so much trash on the street by the police and carted off to jail more than 100 times, mostly for trespassing.

Johnson -- no stranger to the problems of drug addiction and alcoholism -- said he did not need a calendar, a calculator or a statistician's precision to know that his arrests and those of others were clustered around such events as the 1994 Super Bowl, the 1995 World Series, any Billy Graham crusade and computer industry trade shows.

Now, with the Atlanta Summer Olympics just weeks away and given the city's legendary boosterism and tendency to preen, Johnson, 40, and many advocates for the homeless say that life on the streets for the homeless may become an oxymoron.

With the passage of a new ordinance and stricter enforcement of a number of anti-loitering and panhandling ordinances, they see increased efforts to remove homeless people from the streets in anticipation of the arrival of about 3 million visitors for the Games, from July 19 to Aug. 4.

Johnson said he had been told to expect a police sweep this week.

In the last few months, city officials including Mayor Bill Campbell and Police Chief Beverly Harvard have insisted that fTC there is no city policy of clamping down on the homeless prior to the Olympics.

"It's preposterous," to suggest that there is a policy of removing the homeless from the streets, Campbell said in an interview yesterday.

Still, Anita Beaty, co-director of the Atlanta Task Force on the Homeless, said her group had documented more than 9,000 arrests of homeless people from May 1995 to May 1996, a number she said was four times greater than what her group had recorded in other years.

Task force's lawsuit

With this data and affidavits from more than 160 homeless people, the task force has filed a lawsuit challenging two city ordinances and one state ordinance as unconstitutional. They assert that the city has made targets of the homeless in "a systematic effort to purge them from the streets and other public places."

As a result, Judge Owen J. Forrester of U.S. District Court in Atlanta has issued a temporary restraining order against the enforcement of a crucial provision of a recently enacted city ordinance.

The provision would have allowed the police to arrest people "acting in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals" in parking lots and garages, where a large number of burglaries and thefts have been reported and where homeless people often seek shelter.

Conviction under the measure would carry a sentence of two to six months in prison or assignment to a public works project and probation.

The judge's finding

Forrester found the provision's phrasing broad and possibly unconstitutional. More arguments and a decision on whether to extend the restraining order are expected next week when the task force lawyers and city attorneys return to court.

Atlanta's homeless population is estimated at 11,000 to 24,000 in a city of 366,000 residents.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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