A bold mission in Atlanta

Mayor seeks to wipe out chronic homelessness, but her efforts draw fire from critics


ATLANTA -- As a young girl, Shirley Franklin stepped over her father on her way to school as he lay drunk in the doorway of their apartment. Another time, when she saw him staggering in the neighborhood, she crossed the street to avoid talking to him.

Those memories - and the knowledge that her father overcame alcoholism and homelessness and resumed his career as a lawyer - have inspired and empowered Franklin.

Atlanta's first female mayor, elected by a wide margin in 2001 despite no previous experience as an elected official, has made it her mission to do what no mayor has done: eradicate chronic homelessness in her city.

She pushed for a 24-hour resource center for the homeless, called 24/7 Gateway, which opened last summer near the downtown police station. She backed stricter penalties for panhandling downtown.

Now Franklin, 60, is up for re-election and, with no serious competition, expects an overwhelming victory tomorrow.

A divorced mother of three who worked behind the scenes at City Hall for years before running for office, Franklin chose a bold mission.

For the second year in a row, the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless has named Atlanta the second-meanest city in the United States for poor and homeless people, behind Little Rock, Ark. Atlanta's homeless population is estimated to be 11,000, but the city had only about 2,600 shelter beds until the Gateway center added 300.

The $5 million center, supported mostly with private money, serves as a shelter and clearinghouse for agencies that provide services for the homeless in Atlanta.

Its opening, however, was overshadowed by the anti-panhandling ordinance, adopted by the City Council in August, forbidding anyone from begging for money in most of downtown.

The ordinance garnered charges of racism because in Atlanta, where 61 percent of the population is African-American, most of the homeless are black. It effectively bans homeless people from downtown, critics said. The law also has fueled complaints that Franklin, praised by other big-city mayors for her ability to form alliances with the business community, is too beholden to business.

The anti-panhandling proposal originated with the downtown business community, said Anita Beaty, director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. "The timing of the opening of the Gateway project with [the ordinance] is not accidental at all."

Franklin said she saw no conflict between helping the homeless and having strict laws against panhandling.

"We are working against that ranking," she said. "At the same time, we are acknowledging that certain kinds of behavior [are] not acceptable in any part of our city. So professional panhandlers need to find something else to do in Atlanta. If there are people in need, we now have a single place that anyone in Atlanta with nowhere to stay can be connected and networked to all the other services."

Like most everything she has tackled in Atlanta, Franklin has taken on the issue with vigor.

Over the years, while working in the public and the private sectors, Franklin earned the reputation as a straight-talking administrator known for her stubborn stick-to-itiveness.

She describes herself as a "closer," the one people go to when they're down to the wire.

In her first term, Franklin has garnered the respect of her constituents in Atlanta and recognition from across the nation. This year she was awarded the distinguished Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. She also was named one of the "Five Best Big-City Mayors" in America by Time magazine.

Two years ago, when Democrats were struggling to find a replacement for retiring U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, Franklin was bombarded with phone calls from the political elite urging her to seek the seat. She basked in the glory for a while but decided not to run. She worried that she would let down those who elected her mayor, and she realized that she'd rather be an executive than a legislator.

With soaring job-approval ratings and the support of the business community, Franklin is expected to easily win a second term tomorrow. She has amassed a campaign chest of more than $2 million, though she has no serious challenger.

However, Georgia Common Cause, which monitors campaign financing, has been critical of Franklin's fundraising, noting several instances in which supporters donated more than the $2,000 limit.

"The mayor and several members of the City Council have been accumulating quite a bit of money," said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Georgia Common Cause. "Individuals who want some potential to influence policy in the city know that one thing to do is make yourself known in the giving game."

Franklin, who first married at age 18 and has twice divorced, does not have much time for a social life. Right now, she said, her escort to most events is her 84-year-old mother, Ruth White, who lives with her.

"People ask me, `What are you doing for dating?' And I say, `My mother and I are planning to go to the National Black Arts Festival,'" she said. "I don't have time for that right now, but I encourage young women to have a well-balanced life. I tell them not to follow me on that."

Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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