Atlanta airport officials like to boast that Hartsfield-Jackson International is the world’s busiest and most efficient airport, with a terminal that always looks “opening day fresh.”
But over the past few months, the airport’s domestic terminal has become more known for being filled with homeless people overnight and into the early morning hours.
For years, there have periodically been some homeless people at the airport, which is a public place open 24 hours a day. But the closure last year of downtown Atlanta’s Peachtree-Pine shelter, which housed as many as 500 people, combined with a prolonged spate of frigid temperatures, has resulted in larger numbers of homeless seeking out a place to escape the cold.
The City of Atlanta opens warming centers when the temperature drops. Still, over the past couple of months many homeless have been taking MARTA to the Atlanta airport stop, settling down in the comfy chairs in the domestic terminal atrium or stretching out on the floor.
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For some travelers passing through the airport, it’s a startling sight.
Frequent traveler Patricia Martin-Dye arrived at the airport overnight Thursday for an early morning flight and saw homeless people around the atrium and in the domestic terminal.
“They were everywhere,” Martin-Dye said. “I’ve probably been in the airport more than 20 times in the last two years, and I can never remember it being the way it was last night…. It was just really concerning to me.”
Police facing an ‘epidemic’
There have already been incidents involving homeless at the airport.
On Jan. 28, a homeless man exposed himself near the airport domestic terminal atrium, according to a police report.
The man, who was arrested for indecent exposure, had been released from prison in September and had an “extensive arrest record dating back to 2001 with several violent crime charges” including simple battery, carrying a concealed weapon, aggravated assault and felony murder, according to the report. “The arrestee stated he’s homeless and he comes out to the airport to sleep.”
Last year, a homeless man was arrested at Hartsfield-Jackson with a machete, a 10-inch butcher knife and five scissors, according to police.
Police officers had raised concerns about “having to be hands off on the homeless” for a period of time recently, said Vince Champion, Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
“We’ve had quite a few problems with officers being attacked,” Champion said. “Some of [the homeless] aren’t as mentally stable as they should be. We don’t know what’s in their bags, we don’t know what they’re carrying…. You’ve had people urinating in the corners of the airport.”
Officers in the last couple of weeks gained more authority for enforcement to address the issue of homeless at the airport, he said. A loitering ordinance dictates that it’s “unlawful for any person to use or remain in the airport for the purpose of lodging,” except in the case of severe weather, flight delays or other disruption to airport activity.
Yet that hasn’t stopped homeless people from going to Hartsfield-Jackson.
On Thursday night when Martin-Dye was at the airport, officials were asking people to show boarding passes to prove they had a flight to catch. If not, they were told they were trespassing.
“As soon as they would get rid of some [homeless], here comes more,” Martin-Dye said. “The administration at the airport, they were really trying to keep it a minimum…. But this is an epidemic. You can only do so much.”
Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie said the airport takes “safety and security very seriously.”
“We continue to work closely with our partners to assist those who may be experiencing homelessness and find a long term solution,” McCranie said. “We’re going to treat those who may be experiencing homelessness with humanity. Certainly during the colder months we’ll show heart and compassion.”
Police officers at the airport “stand ready to address any criminal activity, regardless of the source,” according to Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos. “They are also committed to helping any individual experiencing homelessness they encounter to understand the resources for assistance available to them.”
Martin-Dye said she thinks the influx of homeless people at the airport “definitely creates a stigma.”
Travelers waiting for flights “don’t want people coming up to them or sitting next to them [who don’t] smell properly or dress properly… and asking them for money,” she said. She said it was “heartbreaking,” especially because the temperature dipped into the 30s that night and “they were not dressed adequately at all.”
“You don’t want people to see a negative, coming from all over the world, coming from different countries. Coming to America, and that’s what you see?,” she said. “That’s not anything for us to be proud of.”
‘A societal issue’
It’s a complicated problem to fix.
The city “cannot force anyone to take shelter in one of our emergency warming facilities,” according to Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “The City believes individuals experiencing homelessness should be treated with dignity and offered the resources and support to transition out of homelessness.”
Kimberly Parker, executive director of Central Outreach & Advocacy Center, an Atlanta-based organization that aims to prevent homelessness, said shelters have tended to be full, and some people “just don’t necessarily want to be in shelters that are quite crowded or at capacity, and are sometimes going to seek areas where they are more likely to find a space of their own, rather than just shoulder-to-shoulder, chair-to-chair.”
Alan Harris, an advocate for the homeless who previously led the Coalition for the Homeless Mentally Ill, said the homeless at the airport are “a reflection of what’s going on in the city.”
“We’re doing good jobs, it seems, of placing people in permanent housing, but it takes months and months,” Harris said. “We don’t have enough shelter for people to go into while they wait for the housing that they qualify for.”
“Imagine yourself, it’s 5:00, it’s going to rain tonight. I don’t have a shelter, I don’t know where to stay dry. I don’t know where to go when it’s 28 degrees outside,” Harris said. “So they go wherever they can go, and one of those places is the airport.”
Hartsfield-Jackson plans to focus on striking partnerships to help homeless to find resources to find shelter, including plans for dedicated Travelers Aid services to assist the homeless at the airport with finding resources.
Champion, with the police officers union, also said the real cause of the problem at the airport “is a societal issue.”
“There’s not as many shelters for the homeless to go to and they’re trying to find a place,” Champion said. “The homeless problem at the airport is the homeless problem, period.”
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