OPINION: Sometimes, you’ve got to try new things to combat homelessness

A homeless encampment in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, August 25, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A homeless encampment in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, August 25, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

While driving down Moreland Avenue recently, I noticed a site that had once housed a popular dance studio in East Atlanta is now an encampment for people with no housing.

It seemed as if, overnight, tents had sprung up near the old studio’s entrance, and a huge hole in one of the window panes led me to believe that more makeshift housing had been rigged up inside.

Atlanta may not have a homeless problem the size of other cities, but we do have a problem. And it’s only gotten worse during the pandemic.

The rate of homelessness in Atlanta increased about 31% from 2021 to 2023, with higher concentrations of people in and around downtown Atlanta, said Brad Schweers, executive director of Intown Cares.

During the first part of the pandemic, the city seemed to be making a dent in homelessness.

Federal programs, meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, helped house more than 600 people and prohibited the eviction of those who fell on hard times during the shutdowns.

“Yet, here we are,” said Schweers.

That’s because the federal programs have ended, but availability and affordability remain big factors in homelessness.

The city has allocated $4 million for the first phase of its Rapid Housing Program, designed to quickly provide permanent residences for the unsheltered in Atlanta.

A low-cost housing village will be located in a city-owned parking lot at 184 Forsyth Street. Eventually, the city would like to see mixed-income housing on the property. But for now, officials plan to repurpose as housing 40 shipping containers — the massive steel boxes used to transport goods by land and sea.

Phoenix, Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey all have some version of a shipping container village. Similar shipping container housing projects have been erected in other cities with varying degrees of success. One project in London, with containers stacked two and three tall, was closed after being deemed “unsuitable” for living. Residents had complained of temperature swings, mold and electrical issues in the units.

We don’t know yet if a shipping container village in Atlanta will be successful in combating our homelessness problem, but we do know what isn’t successful. Clearing out tent encampments, like the one in 2022 near Cheshire Bridge Road and I-85, only sends people to other locations, which is likely how the empty dance studio on Moreland Avenue became what it is now.

It’s hard for me to see the downside of the city’s Rapid Housing Initiative. City leaders are trying something new, and, should the housing village fail at the Forsyth Street location, it is at least easily movable.

Still, there are opponents of both the concept of shipping containers as a form of housing and to the proposed location of this project.

Residents and business owners in the area worry the housing village will quash the potential for any significant redevelopment downtown. The area has suffered setbacks as a number of development projects have stalled. Other opponents suggest the container housing is a Band-Aid for problems that run deeper than housing availability.

The thing is, we are in desperate need of new approaches to homelessness. Instead of saying no, we should first look for ways to make new initiatives work and learn from the places that have tried something different and failed.

Container homes have grown in popularity in recent years, both as transitional housing for the poor and as trendy housing for the wealthy.

The structures for the Atlanta project were donated by the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and once operated as emergency hospitals. They will be redesigned for living and will meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. The village will have common outdoor spaces with tables and seating.

Residents will receive housing vouchers for the units, as well as support services, said Schweers. Four full-time staff will be on-site to support the individuals living in the 40 available units.

“We have to find multiple tools in our tool belt to use,” he said. “Is this the one and only solution to end chronic homelessness? No.”

Sure, there are other options, but I say let’s give this one a try.

As with many other things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for homelessness. But at least Atlanta hasn’t stopped looking for answers.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.