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Robot reports for security duty

The Bum Bot 2000's creator uses it to drive away loiterers near his Atlanta bar. Homeless advocates object.

March 23, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Hollywood may have had RoboCop, but the real world now has a robot more attuned to the prosaic realities of the street.

The Bum Bot.

That is what Rufus Terrill calls the rolling, remote-controlled invention he uses to flush out the prostitutes and pushers who gather near his Midtown Atlanta bar, which is two blocks from the city's largest and most controversial homeless shelter.

"This is actually the Bum Bot 2000," Terrill gently corrected on a recent evening as he switched on the device.

The Bum Bot, like the homeless it polices, is a creature of hand-me-downs. The wheels are from one of those scooters for the elderly; the PA system is a walkie-talkie wired to a home-alarm speaker. The rotating turret is an old Cajun meat smoker.

The cylindrical smoker gives the Bum Bot its R2-D2ish profile. But its black armor -- made of exercise mats -- and the stenciled letters spelling out SECURITY lend it a menacing air.

An infrared camera and a 2-million-candlepower spotlight are mounted on the turret under a homemade cannon, which squirts jets of cold water at up to 200 pounds per square inch.

Using a twin-joystick remote, Terrill usually sends his robot up the street to the parking lot of a day-care center, where a sketchy, drug-dealing crowd congregates after dark. The police sometimes round them up, Terrill says, but soon, it seems, they are back on the street.

So Terrill speaks to them through the Bum Bot, transmitting his voice via walkie-talkie: Move along, he tells the loiterers, or get wet.

Sometimes he tells them that he's capturing them on video: the Bum Bot's camera feeds into a big-screen TV back at his pub, giving patrons a hyper-local dose of reality TV. The street people tend to run away. "It scares the bejesus out of 'em," Terrill said, smiling.

His home-grown strategy for making the neighborhood safer is the latest manifestation of a lingering controversy that has engulfed this prized patch of real estate.

The perpetrators, he says, are the residents of the massive emergency homeless shelter nearby at Peachtree and Pine streets. Terrill says the shelter attracts the kind of people who have broken into his bar, O'Terrill's, and harassed and mugged his neighbors and clients.

Known as Peachtree and Pine, the shelter has amassed other critics, including the administration of Mayor Shirley Franklin, a Democrat whose father was temporarily homeless.

Debi Starnes, the mayor's policy advisor on homelessness, said the shelter, which can accommodate 1,000 people per night, is too big to be properly managed. She also said it fails to adequately help the homeless make the transition to a better life.

This year, the city cut off its funding of the shelter, which is run by the nonprofit Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. However, the shelter carries on with a mix of other public and private funds. In fact, it is in the midst of a multi- million-dollar renovation of its historic, 95,000-square-foot building. It will eventually include a coffee shop and retail business to help teach its residents a trade.

Anita Beaty, the task force's executive director, said the shelter is misunderstood. She says it provides employment referrals, mental health counseling and other services. The problem, she says, is that local government has not come to grips with the magnitude of its homeless problem. Beaty's group estimates that as many as 68,000 people in the metro area are homeless in any given year.

(The city estimates that there were about 2,700 "unsheltered" homeless people last year in Atlanta and the urban counties of Fulton and DeKalb.)

Beaty says local governments do not maintain enough shelter space for all the homeless. This, she says, is the last place for them to go.

Beaty is also convinced that the city is trying to move the homeless off Peachtree Street, Atlanta's signature thoroughfare. The city has plans for a sweeping aesthetic makeover of Peachtree: Business boosters have talked about a Georgia version of Paris' Champs-Elysees.

"The emphasis has always been on beautifying Peachtree to get rid of those poor homeless people, to get them out of town," Beaty said. "We say there's no way to do that. It's just inhumane and silly."

Beaty said the Bum Bot doesn't help matters: "Not everybody outside our building is a drug dealer, and when they are, we want them arrested as much as [Terrill]. A robot is not the way to solve anything."

But Terrill said the robot has done a good job scaring off the law-breakers. On a recent Wednesday evening, he ambled toward the day-care parking lot with his creation rolling along at his side. When he arrived about 11:30 p.m., the lot was empty.

(Later, however, after he packed up the robot, dozens of men would swarm the place, hooting after passing vehicles.)

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