Thomas Lecky is an unwitting expert in surviving at a homeless encampment.
The 41-year-old has slept under an Atlanta highway overpass over the past six months, near colorful tents of other people who have nowhere else to go. He surrounds himself with his valuables so other people can’t steal from him. He knows where the best food bank is, and bathes by pouring water over his clothed body.
But knowing how to survive doesn’t make it any easier.
“It’s hell,” said Lecky, who has been homeless since 2019, after he was injured at work and couldn’t cover his rent payments. “It feels like the ninth ring of hell. You’re always having to start over.”
By Sept. 8, the encampment that Lecky lives in is scheduled to be closed by the city, and he is praying that his cycle of homelessness will soon come to an end. Atlanta’s lead agency on homelessness response has launched its most aggressive campaign to date, with a goal of providing housing to 1,500 people or families by December 2024.
The agency, Partners for Home, wants to get 250 people into housing by the end of 2022. They plan to do it by finding apartment units across metro Atlanta and helping to pay rent for a year or two.
It’s a sophisticated operation that involves closing ten homeless encampments in Atlanta, while simultaneously working to move the people living there into hotel rooms, shelters and more permanent housing. Partners for Home is teaming up with nonprofits around the city, and has even purchased its own motel property for temporary stays.
This latest initiative of housing 1,500 people or families is the second phase of a program that came about during the pandemic. In November 2020, Partners for Home had an initial goal of housing 800 people or families who were at the highest risk, and helping another 1,200 people or families into more stable housing by giving them cash or food assistance.
It largely worked, says Cathryn Vassell, who is the chief executive officer for Partners for Home. In all, Partners for Home fell only slightly short of their goal of housing 800 households, instead housing a total of 794 people or families by providing them rent and services for one to two years. Since then, 5% of those people have returned to homelessness. The agency is further from its goal of helping 1,200 people who were at lower risk. But the findings so far have been very promising. To date, they’ve granted aid to 645 households, only 4% of whom have returned to being homeless.
The work that Partners for Home is doing is funded through a combination of city, state, and federal funds, as well as from donations. The second phase of this program is expected to cost a total of $33 million, including $7 million that still needs to be raised.
Atlanta has made progress in reducing the number of people who don’t have housing.
In 2015, there were 4,317 homeless people in Atlanta, with more than 1,000 living outside shelters, according to Partners for Home data. In 2022, that number was cut by more than half: in total, the most recent survey counted a total of 2,017 homeless people, with just 640 living on the streets. That said, this data is imperfect: it’s from a count which identifies people who were homeless on one night in January of each year.
“During COVID there was a very clear silver lining,” Vassell said at a Senate study committee on homelessness in early August. “Which is when we invest at scale, we can create the housing solutions that we need, and we will see the continued decline” of people who are experiencing homelessness.
Sunny Leon, an activist who works with people who are homeless, said that these “sweeps” of homeless camps are disruptive to the people living there. After the latest encampment clearing at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Central Avenue, Leon said that some of the people who didn’t get a hotel spot simply moved to the other side of the street.
“It’s very destabilizing,” Leon said. “Everyone is just fed up.”
Leon is part of a mutual aid group, Sol Underground, that is arguing for alternatives to clearing homeless camps, and to instead immediately give people permanent housing.
“People were being provided with a lot of different information, and getting their hopes up,” they said of the encampment closure on MLK. “They didn’t have a grasp about what or when action would be taken.”
Partners for Home says that they are taking a compassionate approach to closing down these encampments. While other sweeps are unannounced, Partners for Home and the city make sure to inform people beforehand so they have time to gather their belongings and prepare.
The encampment that is set to close by Sept. 8 sprawls underneath I-20 off Pryor Street. There are dozens of colored tents strewn across the site, as well as the other signs of daily life: clothes lines, trash and coolers filled with food.
The encampment has been cleared out by the city several times before. Officials laid down boulders and posted “no trespassing” signs to deter people from pitching their tents. But people without a home just keep coming back.
Lecky considers himself one of the luckier ones. He has a “sweet spot” that’s under the bridge, meaning when it rains he doesn’t get wet. He pitched his tent nestled in the rocks.
“They put these rocks down to displace the homeless, so that you don’t have the coverage the bridge provides,” he said. “It’s pretty draconian.”
It’s a misconception that people who are homeless aren’t working, he says. Since becoming homeless, Lecky has strung together a number of jobs: he’s been a security guard, worked behind the deli counter, and has done temp work.
Every so often, someone stops by the encampment with food. These people are church-goers, volunteers or just general do-gooders, who show up unannounced. This time, it was lunch meat and bread. Earlier in the week, hot dogs were handed out.
On a Friday in late August, outreach workers walked around the encampment, taking names and trying to build trust.
One by one, the homeless people were told that the encampment is set to close in a few weeks. The outreach workers ask each person a series of questions: what’s their name? Do they have a source of income? Do they have any self-identifying documents with them? Have they worked with a case manager before? And perhaps most importantly: Do they want help?
“It's hell. It feels like the ninth ring of hell. You're always having to start over."
Two encampments were cleared earlier in August: 38 people were moved directly into a hotel, six people went to shelter and nine people declined the help or Partners for Home lost sight of them. The agency is relying on a well-researched theory that’s known as Housing First. The idea is to immediately give a person housing and other services, instead of making a person become sober or reach other milestones first.
In the days before the encampment is set to close, Lecky is anxious. But he’s hopeful that he will soon be in a more secure place.
“It’s a constant starting over, at least every eight months there is a re-set,” he said. “It’s rough. Especially when you’re trying.”
If you would like to donate to either Partners for Home or Sol Underground, donations can be made at https://partnersforhome.org/donate/, and https://www.instagram.com/solunderground.
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