New count of homeless expected to show pandemic has worsened crisis

Michael Smith (left) shares his story as Mackendy Pierrette looks outside the Gateway Center in Atlanta on Thursday, January 20, 2022. The Gateway Center is a homeless service center. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Michael Smith (left) shares his story as Mackendy Pierrette looks outside the Gateway Center in Atlanta on Thursday, January 20, 2022. The Gateway Center is a homeless service center. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Aid workers say upheaval from COVID makes problem more complex

The sky spit icy rain Thursday afternoon in downtown Atlanta, wetting people’s clothes and driving the cold to the bone. A few dozen stood, or rested on the pavement on Pryor Street because they had nowhere else to go.

”You can see what we’re going through: We have to be outside,” said Mackendy Pierrette, 47, who said he’d been without a place to stay for a few months after losing his job at a warehouse, then his apartment. He shivered in a soaked heavy coat. “I was waking up every morning, going to work.”

“There’s kids out here,” another man complained.

The situation on Atlanta streets for many is dire, and Pierrette represents one of what aid workers say are large numbers of people left without a home as a result of struggles amid the ongoing pandemic. It isn’t clear how many like him are living homeless in Atlanta, but this week, volunteers collected data that could help quantify the problem.

On Monday night, Atlanta held its annual “Point-in-Time” count to tally the number of people who are homeless in the city and survey them. The results are expected later this year. The 2022 count is the first in Atlanta since the start of the pandemic, a world-shaking event that U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge has said “only made the homelessness crisis worse.”

The data collected in the count, required by the federal government, helps determine how housing resources are allocated around the country.

In January 2020, 3,240 people were counted in the city of Atlanta, on par with the prior year, though there was a 31% increase in people sleeping outdoors rather than inside homeless shelters. Numerous private and publicly funded shelters serve the city of Atlanta, providing a total 2,800 beds, though many people decline shelters for various reasons, including lack of privacy and fear of catching COVID in close proximity to others. To be included in the Point-in-Time tally, a person must be in transitional housing, unsheltered or in an emergency shelter. The 2021 count was canceled due to COVID concerns.

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January 20, 2022 Atlanta - Michael Cumbie holding all his belongings stands in rain outside the Gateway Center in Atlanta on Thursday, January 20, 2022. The Gateway Center is a homeless service center. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

January 20, 2022 Atlanta - Michael Cumbie holding all his belongings stands in rain outside the Gateway Center in Atlanta on Thursday, January 20, 2022. The Gateway Center is a homeless service center. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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January 20, 2022 Atlanta - Michael Cumbie holding all his belongings stands in rain outside the Gateway Center in Atlanta on Thursday, January 20, 2022. The Gateway Center is a homeless service center. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Nonprofit officials and those who work directly with people in the midst of homelessness have seen changes since the pandemic began.

“The unsheltered population is really changing,” said Brenda Cibulas, the director of behavioral health at Mercy Care, which provides health and other services to people living on the street. “Besides some of the chronically homeless, there are more and more of the newly homeless, hardworking people who had a decrease in business (or) no work...”

Before the pandemic, Mercy Care saw mainly people who’d slid into homeless due to major illnesses that left people unable to work and stay afloat, Cibulas said. The pandemic and its myriad complications make it easier for many to fall behind.

The expiration of the federal eviction moratorium in August saw evictions spike in Georgia, averaging about 10,000 a month in the five-county metro Atlanta area in the subsequent three months, according to data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Prior to the pandemic, the average was more like 7,500 a month.

Thandiwe DeShazor hears stories every day at work. He works crisis lines in the city of Atlanta and in DeKalb County as part of his job with CHRIS 180, a behavioral health services nonprofit.

“It’s really a huge swath of people,” said DeShazor. “It’s from seniors, to young people, to professionals, to people who are currently employed, to people who are unemployed. A lot of folks are living in their cars.”

Nearly every call he receives, DeShazor said, people list some aspect of the ongoing crush of the pandemic as a contributing factor to their housing instability.

Advocates also say they see some positive signs. Nearly 700 people who’d been homeless were provided stable housing with coronavirus relief dollars in 2021. Local governments were given wide discretion when deciding how to spend CARES Act funds. Many used it for rental and mortgage assistance.

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Cathryn Marchman, chief executive officer of Partners for HOME.

Cathryn Marchman, chief executive officer of Partners for HOME.

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Cathryn Marchman, chief executive officer of Partners for HOME.

Those who were housed in Atlanta are in the process of moving into permanent placements, said Cathryn Marchman, CEO of Partners for HOME, the nonprofit that leads Atlanta’s housing policy. Partners for home spearheaded the housing efforts by giving people a room in so-called bridge housing, which practically speaking was an old Ramada on Capitol Avenue. From the hotel, they were placed in apartments around metro Atlanta on one-year leases, paid, and then given services to help them become more self-sufficient long-term.

Two hundred of them received emergency housing vouchers through the Atlanta Housing Authority. “And other folks are just transitioning off the program, if they have now gotten a job and they’re paying the rent,” Marchman said.

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Mathew Reed (left), Mercy Care case manager, encourages his client at Mercy Community Church in Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Mercy Care started a street medicine team with one night a week and has expanded the program - to four days/nights a team of nurses and a social workers provide medical and mental health care to people living on the streets. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Mathew Reed (left), Mercy Care case manager, encourages his client at Mercy Community Church in Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Mercy Care started a street medicine team with one night a week and has expanded the program - to four days/nights a team of nurses and a social workers provide medical and mental health care to people living on the streets. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Mathew Reed (left), Mercy Care case manager, encourages his client at Mercy Community Church in Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Mercy Care started a street medicine team with one night a week and has expanded the program - to four days/nights a team of nurses and a social workers provide medical and mental health care to people living on the streets. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The hotel was key in the process. Far more people were willing to accept a hotel room than a cot in an emergency shelter where they have no privacy, said Brad Schweers, executive director of Intown Collaborative Ministries, whose outreach program helps people on the street find housing.

Schweers hopes to see the program continue. “Housing solves homelessness,” he said.

Partners for HOME is working with the city and a development partner to obtain a new hotel, and perhaps two or three others; the Ramada was rented.

The need for such a program is exacerbated, Marchman said, by the city’s lack of affordable housing.

“If we continue to lose housing affordability at the rate that we are now,” she said, “there is only so much that our system is going to be able to do.”

ABOUT THE COUNT

On Monday night, Atlanta held its annual “Point-in-Time” count to tally the number of people who are homeless in the city. The results, expected later this year, will help quantify the pandemic’s effect on homelessness in the city. The 2022 count is the first in Atlanta since the start of the pandemic. In January 2020, volunteers counted over 3,000 people who were classified as homeless in the city. The data collected in the count, required by the federal government, helps determine how housing resources are allocated around the country.