Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Saturday, March 21, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Atlanta faced with growing homeless population at Hartsfield-Jackson

The city of Atlanta is faced with another challenge in the coronavirus outbreak: Hundreds of homeless people are sleeping at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

For years, airport officials and police have worked to discourage homeless people from spending the night at the facility when there’s inclement weather. The problem drew attention and concern earlier this year before the pandemic hit in full force.

It’s only gotten worse.

By late March, Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden was saying there were 300 people in the terminal overnight.

Under normal circumstances, the airport has 100 to 150 homeless people in the airport on colder nights, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told Atlanta City Council members during a teleconference briefing on Tuesday.

“It’s become an even bigger challenge as many of our shelters have closed down and many of the places that our homeless population disperses to are no longer available to them,” she said.

They take MARTA to the airport’s domestic terminal to take a nap, charge their cell phones or buy food, since many of the city’s restaurants are now closed, Bottoms said.

She said the airport has removed seating in the domestic terminal atrium in order to allow more space for social distancing.

As the pandemic continues, the airport has far less passenger traffic due to the precipitous decline in travel as people stay at home. The terminal is quieter and less congested with travelers.

Airport workers are cleaning several times a night. They have raised concerns about the increase in the number of homeless people there.

“We’re dealing with many people who have underlying challenges, quite often mental health challenges,” which makes it difficult to refer them to other shelters, Bottoms said. She said the city is trying to redirect people without driving them to other areas to congregate, which also cause problems.

The mayor said that, for the most part, those at the airport “appear to be asymptomatic.” But she added there’s no way to know if people have the coronavirus. Medical facilities are mostly only testing people who have symptoms of COVID-19. She said the city is also trying to procure face masks for the homeless.

Bottoms said the city is considering using the Atlanta City Detention Center to house some. “But again, you’re dealing with a population that is often resistant to receiving assistance and, in addition to that, layering on that people just may not want to go into a jail for housing,” she said. “But we are continuing to explore that.”

She said the city’s recreation centers had been considered, but those centers are already being used to distribute meals for students and she is concerned about the community response to housing homeless in the rec centers.

“Everybody says they want to help, right up until the bus pulls up into their neighborhood recreation center,” Bottoms said. “It would be my preference that we use another facility that’s not in the heart of a community.”

For homeless people who have the coronavirus or have symptoms and are awaiting test results, the Georgia Department of Public Health is leasing a downtown Atlanta hotel for isolation and quarantine.

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