City Council members want Atlanta airport to do more to help homeless

Un-housed often seek overnight shelter at Hartsfield-Jackson in cold weather months
A man sleeps in the domestic terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Friday, February 7, 2020, in Atlanta. Many of Atlanta’s homeless sleep overnight in the airport’s domestic terminal when the city experiences frigid overnight temperatures. (Christina Matacotta for the AJC)

A man sleeps in the domestic terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Friday, February 7, 2020, in Atlanta. Many of Atlanta’s homeless sleep overnight in the airport’s domestic terminal when the city experiences frigid overnight temperatures. (Christina Matacotta for the AJC)

When the weather turns cold in Atlanta, homeless people head to the world’s busiest airport for shelter — with many streaming in on MARTA late at night after the biggest crowds of travelers have cleared out of the terminal.

It’s a years-long issue that airport, city and MARTA officials, homeless outreach groups and others have sought to address with limited success. It’s also a challenge faced by other cities.

This week, the Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee, which oversees the airport, passed a resolution urging the airport to adopt a plan to help homeless people, but with few details on what a new plan should include.

As temperatures fell near or below freezing, the city of Atlanta opened a warming center two nights this week. The council resolution noted that during the colder winter months, homeless people “look for places to stay warm and safe and flock to” the airport.

Homeless people are sleeping in the atrium and using the airport restrooms, said Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet, one of the sponsors of the resolution, “and that means they need a place to stay.”

There are many factors that cause people to suffer from homelessness, including high housing costs, job loss, addiction, mental illness and other issues. Another constant challenge in providing help is that those who are coping with substance abuse and mental health issues may refuse to go to a shelter or hotel.

The last census of Atlanta’s homeless population, conducted in January, found 2,679 people either living outside or in city shelters, an increase of about a third compared to the same period in 2022. The annual un-housed census is an imperfect count as people who experience homelessness are often transient. Atlanta’s homeless census for 2023 was about 25% lower, however, than 2017.

The city and the airport have a policy “not to criminalize those who are experiencing homelessness,” according to a city ordinance.

“We’re humane,” said Michael Smith, senior deputy general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson. “We’re not going to put anyone out into the freezing cold.”

But the resolution also says the city must have a plan to address the needs of the homeless at the airport “to ensure the city provides a safe environment for the many travelers navigating though Hartsfield-Jackson ... on a daily basis.”

Homeless outreach contracts

The resolution, which next goes to the full council for approval, urges the airport to strike an emergency contract for up to $500,000 for outreach to the homeless.

Hartsfield-Jackson already has an $870,000 contract with HOPE Atlanta to relocate homeless people. HOPE Atlanta, also known as Travelers Aid Metro Atlanta, has had a presence at the airport for decades.

The airport’s current three-year contract with HOPE Atlanta was approved by the council in November 2020, and the city has started the procurement process for a new contract to provide emergency services to homeless people and transport them to shelters, with case managers aimed at ultimately placing them in permanent housing.

But Overstreet said, “I would like for all hands to be on deck.”

Atlanta City Council member Marci Collier Overstreet questions MARTA General Manager and CEO Collie Greenwood during an Atlanta City Council transportation committee meeting at City Hall in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /


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She said the city put $4.5 million toward the Atlanta Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative, which works with the city to give people treatment and services instead of arresting them for minor, nonviolent offenses, and said “they should also be deployed to the airport.” The organization’s pre-arrest diversion services include MARTA and Atlanta Police Department officers.

APD also has a Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team for outreach to the homeless.

Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Balram Bheodari said the airport will review the resolution to ensure that any expenditures would not violate federal regulation prohibiting the use of airport funds for non-airport purposes.

Overnight access

The resolution also asks the airport to consider expanding the areas of the terminal that are restricted to ticketed travelers or those assisting travelers.

Hartsfield-Jackson has for years had a policy of restricting access to the airport during overnight hours.

In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic when the homelessness issue rose in prominence, the city codified its policy into law. The city ordinance says only ticketed passengers, those assisting them and authorized employees can be in the airport common areas. The ordinance said the hours of operation policy applies to “all who enter the airport, unsheltered or otherwise.”

The ordinance said “the Atlanta Police Department is authorized to detain, cite, and arrest individuals who violate the policy.” But it also said that should a homeless person “resistant to outreach services be arrested for a violation,” they would get access to pre-trial intervention services through the Municipal Court of Atlanta.

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