by Robin Kemp

A Tara Boulevard events center that rented its hall to Commissioner DeMont Davis for several days as a pop-up warming center for homeless people during recent subfreezing temperatures has been ordered not to do it again.

A letter from The Shops of Tara’s leasing company to Soy Events Center said the business had violated the terms of its lease and that it had to cure the matter immediately–or face legal action.

The letter was dated Feb. 2, two days after the temporary pop-up warming center had shut down.

Sunizo Regional Property Manager Kristy Griffin wrote to Soy Events and Entertainment Inc., “We have received several complaints and witnessed you Hosting a Homeless Shelter within the last week. At this time you are currently in violation of your lease, as your lease agreement strictly states, Permitted use for your suites are for an ‘Event Hall’ and ‘Food Preparation.'”

The letter alleged that Soy Events had violated the terms of its lease, in Griffin’s words, by:

  • “hosting a homeless shelter”
  • “allowing homeless to loiter outside of your premises”
  • “long lines of homeless standing and blocking neighboring suites”
  • “allowing homeless to set up cots/bedding to sleep inside of the suites overnight”
  • “feeding the homeless”
  • “allowing the homeless to store trash, debris, personal belongings and food in the common areas and around entries to neighboring suites as well as blocking walkways”

The notice concluded, “This is a letter requesting for you to immediately cure the violation, failure to do so may place each LEASE in jeopardy and warrant legal action against you.”

Notice to Cure from Sunizo, the management company for The Shops of Tara, sent to Soy Events two days after the pop-up shelter closed.

The Clayton Crescent attempted to reach Griffin by e-mail and left a voicemail message seeking comment from the perspective of the property management company for this story but did not receive any response by press time. We did reach Soy Events Center owner Lula Gillespie by phone Wednesday morning. She said she was filing documents at the courthouse and would respond later. We will update with any further comments.

On several occasions during the warming effort, The Clayton Crescent checked out the events center and the area outside it and never saw more than one or two people on the sidewalk at a time–for example, a man who stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, then went back inside.

Inside the pop-up warming shelter at Soy Events Center. (DeMont Davis photo)

On two occasions, The Clayton Crescent visited Soy Events Center in the morning after the homeless people had left. Both times, the floor had been mopped and sanitized, no bedding was in sight, and any packaged food or chafing dishes had been squared away at the buffet table. Nothing visibly indicated that people had spent the night there.

Life-threatening temperatures

The pop-up warming shelter opened at 6 p.m. on Jan. 21 through 22, then was extended to 6 a.m. Jan. 31. During that time, overnight temperatures remained at freezing or below, according to the National Weather Service in Peachtree City:

 

According to a Jan. 23 press release issued during the effort, Davis said, “This was a last-minute idea that came to fruition….We are experiencing freezing temperatures and we need to help our displaced and homeless population. I am extremely proud of the community for coming together to assist in this time of need.”

Davis told The Clayton Crescent that he had felt compelled to take action and had paid for the rental with his own money. At least one other person donated funds to rent out the hall. Several elected and appointed officials from various jurisdictions, as well as volunteers, donated food and personal care items, cooked meals, and spent time with the people who came in out of the cold.

Time for a plan?

Search Clayton County’s code of ordinances for the word “homeless” and you’ll come up with one hit: about stray animals.

While nothing in the county’s code says anything specific about all0wing homeless shelters in properties zoned for retail, it also doesn’t say anything specific about banning that use, nor does it say anything about temporary emergency uses, such as the pop-up warming shelter.

The county has devoted SPLOST dollars to building numerous recreation and community centers, which could be used as pop-up warming centers for homeless people and for people who have no heat at home. Before the temperatures dropped, The Clayton Crescent asked Chairman Jeff Turner whether the county had an emergency plan for warming shelters in subfreezing weather. Turner said the county has a deal with the school system to open some schools and a recreation center in case of emergency.

District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis and two volunteers at the pop-up warming shelter. (Photo: DeMont Davis)

Davis told The Clayton Crescent that he was frustrated by talk and wanted to take action, so he began calling various event centers around the county, looking to rent one out with his own money. Gillespie said she would be happy to help. Word got out, and people volunteered to help–including Jonesboro  Councilmembers Pat Sebo-Hand, Dr. Donya Sartor, and Tracey Messick, who took turns cooking for the people who had sought shelter from the deadly cold.

Invest Clayton Chair Regina Deloach at the pop-up warming center. (Photo: DeMont Davis)

Others who pitched in included Chairman Jeff Turner, State Rep. Sandra Scott, State Rep. Rhonda Burnough, Clayton County COO Detrick Stanford, Invest Clayton Chair Regina Deloach, Antonio Cummings, Drew Andrews, Derwin Davis, Dr. Laura Davis D.D.S., Dee Haney, Attania Jean-Funny, Turning Point Church, Mickey Garber, All In Sports Bar, Clayton County Democratic Party of Georgia, Savoy, Seven Sports Bar, Clayton County Federation of Democratic Women, Salima Abdullah, Amaris Cummings, and  Kingdom Life Community Center, among others [including, as a matter of transparency, this reporter, using personal funds for a food donation].

The warming center was conceived as an emergency response to the dangerously cold weather. In a Facebook post, Davis explained why he, his wife, and some friends decided to provide the warming center.

“We’re here on a very cold night in Clayton County. It’s down to roughly close to 30 degrees…. We’ve got a lot of folks that are outside in these elements, and we’ve got to begin to do something about it,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, Clayton County does not have a warming station for these individuals. But I am so glad that we found this place, Soy Entertainment Center….I reached out to Ms. G earlier today and she came through…This was near and dear to my heart because sometimes government takes too long. Government is too slow. But then on the flip side of, people think government can do everything, and should do everything. And sometimes, we just need to do it ourselves. And that was my thought when I woke up yesterday: just do it.”

Davis said he did not ask anyone for any donations–people just stepped up and gave.

“It makes my heart feel good that we do reach out and help each other,” he said. “If it were your mother, or your child, or you, would you want some help? And I think the answer is yes.”

In the middle of all this, Davis said, his father-in-law died–but his wife, orthodontist Dr. Laura Davis, D.D.S., called to ask whether she needed to make more food.

Davis said he would “fight to the death” for Gillespie because of her generosity.

“It’s tragic when a business owner who wants to do something good is threatened with legal action,” he said.

Too many retail spaces, not enough homes

The weather is still cold at night and people are still sleeping outside in Clayton County. With limited shelter space for unhoused families, rising rents, COVID-19-fueled evictions, and an ever-tightening housing market, Clayton County is facing two problems: what to do in case of a freezing-weather emergency and what to do about a growing number of people who are in need of shelter.

Many of them are turning up at strip malls. Google “homelessness in strip malls” and the extent of the problem is clearly nationwide–and one suggestion that keeps coming up is to repurpose empty retail spaces as affordable housing.

A retail strip might not be the ideal location for a long-term facility serving homeless people. Property owners are in the business of collecting rent and protecting their property values. (Whether homeless shelters actually cause property values to fall is a hotly-debated issue.)

But they also could be part of solving the problem of people not having anywhere to sleep, according to an article in Fast Company this week.

Suburban parts of the San Francisco Bay area are trying to upgrade their moribund commercial strips in the same ways that Clayton County is–residential up, retail down, rapid transit. The problem in the Bay Area, as in Clayton County, is the shortage of affordable housing along major arteries that support bus rapid transit.

Urban Footprint founder Peter Calthorpe said, “Because of the proximity to fast, convenient transit—and to major employers in Silicon Valley—the new housing could also shrink commutes and reduce congestion on roads. Because apartments are more efficient than single-family houses, people living in new units would use 39% less energy than people living in an average home in the area, use 62% less water, and spend roughly half as much on utility bills and transportation. With major streets redesigned to be places where people want to spend time, they could also become places where people living nearby would want to walk to, rather than getting in a car to run every errand.

“It’s a beautiful, comprehensive way to come at a systemic problem because it solves the transportation problem,” Calthorpe told Fast Company. “It solves the workforce-housing problem, it solves affordable housing. And it’s a big solution in terms of carbon and climate change.”
Soy Events’ window advertising the hall’s normal uses. The event center rented the hall to Clayton County Commissioner DeMont Davis, who wanted to create an emergency warming center during subfreezing temperatures in late January. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

That makes sense for long-term empty sites–say, along Mt. Zion Road–but The Shops at Tara is a busy shopping center with several long-term tenants–including Soy Events. The property is 78% occupied, with a current asking price on LoopNet of $8,995,000, and zoned MX–mixed-use–according to the county GIS map. County code notes mixed use “is intended to capitalize on the market demand for reduced commuting times and an environment that offers a wide range of services, activities, and housing options. A full range of urban housing, employment, retail and entertainment options is accommodated by the Mixed Use District.”

Online county property records list The Shops of Tara’s owners are Ozinus SOT, LLC and PWX, LLC. The Georgia online corporate registration for Ozinus (Sunizo spelled backwards) lists attorney Michael P. Kornheiser as registered agent (Open Corporates notes Kornheiser was removed as agent in October 2021), whose office is at 6400 Powers Ferry Rd., Suite 150, and lists a corporate address of 12481 Brantley Commons Court in Fort Myers, FL. (While the pop-up warming center was open, low temperatures in Fort Myers ranged from 35 to 63 degrees.) PWX, LLC was dissolved in 2014, according to the Secretary of State’s online business filings. The applicant was listed as Shawn Alexander, corporate paralegal for Tucker, Flyer, a law office at 1615 “L” St. NW, Suite 400 in Washington, DC, and listed an address in care of Stravins and Axelrod Properties, Inc., 1730 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Suite 9, also in Washington. The president of Ozinus Realty LLC is Stephen McKnight, a real estate magnate and president of Ozinus Realty, LLC.

What do the neighbors say?

While they aren’t the property owners, five business owners next to Soy Events told The Clayton Crescent they had no issues with the warming center or its patrons.

Nail Lab owner Tao Pham said she hadn’t had an issue with the pop-up shelter patrons.

“I remember maybe some people out there at night. They were pretty respectful. They were very respectful,” she said. “They were outside, waiting for them to open the door, but they were pretty respectful. There was another lady that was telling us that was going on. We thought that was pretty nice. But yeah, I didn’t have a problem with them being outside or anything like that. But yeah, they was just outside waiting for the door to open, that’s it.”

Pham said no one had been panhandling or disturbing her clients.

Outside Soy Events Center, site of the pop-up warming shelter last month. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Even if the center were a permanent and not a temporary facility, the adjoining neighbors said they’d have no problem with that.

“The only thing that might be a concern, not to me, but to my clients, is if they walked out and there’s a whole bunch of people standing around, that’s the only thing,” Pham said. “But other than that, we do let our clients know what was going on, you know, because we do stay open late. I think it was just like, that whole week, it was just them just standing outside. But they [Soy Events Center]  already told us what was going on, so we informed our clients, so they were okay.”

A woman who identified herself as the owner of Hair Vigorous said, “I thought they were doing something good….Well, maybe it was probably not in their lease agreement.” She added that she didn’t know that the homeless people were “causing any disturbance.”

A man who said he was the owner of Monterey Mexican Restaurant said he didn’t know of any problems and that he has occasionally given food to people who have asked.

An employee at a video production studio said the owner was out. She also had not heard of any issues with the pop-up warming center at Soy Events.

“Not that I can see, we’re usually here every day and I didn’t see anything that was a disturbance to me,” she said. “Especially now that it’s cold. I mean, how heartless can you be? And you would think, because I saw a documentary online about the poverty and homelessness in America, that you wouldn’t think it was that bad for a country this rich. You have people who honestly live like they’re in a Third World country. In this country. And it’s just–it’s horrible. I never had a problem with it and we never had a disturbance in the parking lot, nothing. No problems at all.”

Richard Duncan, whose Drip Tattoo is on the other side of the event center, said he’d had no problems with the pop-up warming center or its patrons.

“I’ve been here for three years and I noticed that there was a little bit of loitering but nothing to be complaining about, because for years, I’ve noticed that there’s been homeless people here in the area,” he said. “There was a family here before that we tried to help and you know, it wasn’t anything out of the norm. Nothing to alarm anybody….I didn’t see anybody doing anything that would cause alarm.”

Asked whether he thought the effort made his business look downscale or had a negative effect, Duncan said, “On my business? No. My business is a tattoo shop. People come in here and they just waltz right in. They’re not very concerned about what’s going on outside.”

A sign posted outside Soy Events Center, the site of a temporary warming center in January. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

While Clayton County does not have a large homeless population, people without a place to lay their head are making do in the bushes, under overpasses, and in abandoned buildings. Davis said Clayton County Police worked for two weeks to try and help a man who had set up a tent on Mt. Zion Road near Tara Boulevard. At first, he said, the man refused help. Finally, he asked police to take him someplace else and they obliged.

Wednesday afternoon, a bearded man wrapped in a blanket sat outside La Morena Supermarket.

Duncan knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the glass looking in.

“I actually appreciate something like that because, at one point in time, I was homeless, too,” he said. “Life takes you through its journeys and it’s all about trying to figure it out. I appreciate what was going on over there.”

Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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