Atlanta approves funds for build-out of diversion center, appraisal of jail building

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The city of Atlanta has chosen a firm to build a new 24/7 diversion center at the city’s detention facility, as it seeks an appraisal of the 11-story downtown building.

The City Council on Monday approved a nearly $3 million contract for construction of the new “Center for Diversion Services,” set to open in 2023. The facility will provide care to people struggling with behavioral health issues or homelessness and who might otherwise be booked into jail for a minor, non-violent offense.

Construction will begin early next year, officials said.

The approval of the contract comes weeks after the City Council approved an agreement to lease 700 of the city’s empty beds at the Atlanta City Detention Center to Fulton County, a move brokered by Mayor Andre Dickens’ office and aimed at alleviating overcrowding at the county’s jail. The lease, which faced intense pushback from activists, is set to last for four years, with options to extend it.

The 12,000-square-foot diversion center is slated to take up part of one floor in the detention center building, which will continue operating.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

It was first announced last year by then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as a partnership between the city, Fulton County, Grady Memorial Hospital and the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative. On top of the build-out cost, the city and county are both slated to pay $2.5 million in annual operating costs for the center.

The diversion center is set to include behavioral health screenings, medical care, sobering rooms, case management, food, and showers.

Officials see the center as a way to address the root causes of crime — and reduce overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail — by providing people with resources, rather than simply putting them behind bars.

“This is a people-first holistic approach to public safety to end the cycle of needless incarceration for non-violent offenders and strengthen community wellness by directly addressing the underlying issues related to behavioral health and poverty,” Dickens said in a statement.

Local activists, and some councilmembers, have pushed for years for the city to close its mostly empty detention center and turn it into a larger wellness center. A proposal to transform the building into the “John Lewis Center For Health and Wellness” failed in the City Council this year as officials instead favored the lease agreement with Fulton County.

Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites successfully sponsored a resolution requesting that the city seek an appraisal of the detention center building. The mayor has said he supports the eventual repurposing of the building, after the county’s lease is up. The appraisal could factor into those conversations down the road.

“It’s clear that the detention center is underutilized for its original purpose, and as we work to reimagine this space, with this information, we can make better decisions regarding the best use and highest value of the site,” Waites said in a statement Monday.