Counting Atlanta’s homeless population, one person at a time

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Volunteers canvassed the city into the early hours of Tuesday morning

On late Monday night, with the temperature dropping into the 30s, five volunteers bundled in winter clothes stood near a street corner in Atlanta. The group had a difficult task at hand: to coax a man fast asleep in a tent to come outside and talk.

Allured by their friendliness, he stepped outside, along with two other men who were crammed inside the small shelter. The men spent several minutes answering the volunteers’ questions before receiving gift cards for food.

It was an exchange repeated hundreds of times across the city into the early hours of Tuesday morning, as part of the annual “Point-in-Time” count of the city’s homeless population. The count is mandated by the federal government to tally the number of people who are homeless on one night in January. On Monday, volunteers canvassed the city to talk to people who were asleep outside and throughout this week they will visit shelters in Atlanta to complete the count.

“I’ve been here for a minute,” said Todd Rick, one of the men living in the tent near the Mechanicsville neighborhood. Although he’s only 31, he’s been homeless for more than a decade.

It’s not easy, he admits. Living out here ca

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

n be lonely. And yet, Rick is optimistic.

“I tend to believe things are going to work themselves out,” he says.

In 2015, there were 4,317 homeless people in Atlanta, with more than 1,000 living outside and not in a homeless shelter, according to Partners for Home data. The most recent survey, conducted last year, found that number had dropped in half: A total of 2,017 were found to be homeless with 640 living on the streets.

The Point-in-Time count is admittedly imperfect, but is the best indicator of how many people are homeless in Atlanta and across the country. The data helps government officials identify trends within the homeless population, and ultimately determines where resources will be spent. The results of the survey won’t be released for several months.

ExploreAtlanta races to house hundreds of people by year's end

Before the canvassing began, Cathryn Vassell, the chief executive officer for Partners for Home, told a packed room of volunteers that this information will help city officials and advocates understand how they are doing in their work to reduce homelessness.

“This is critical data,” said Vassell, whose organization is the city’s lead agency on homelessness. “It also helps us get a glimpse into lives and stories of individuals that are generally not told or heard.”

In the fall, Partners for Home launched a campaign to house 1,500 homeless people or families by December 2024. The agency is working to clear 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 to reach its goals and has even purchased a motel property that can be used for temporary stays.

The work that Partners for Home is doing is funded through a combination of city, state, and federal funds, as well as from donations. They find apartment units across metro Atlanta to house people and and help to pay rent for a year or two.

The project will ultimately cost about $33 million, and Partners for Home still needs to raise a couple million dollars.

The biggest struggle right now is finding units for people to live in and landlords who will participate in the program. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens is hosting a forum for landlords later this week, and Vassell said she is hopeful that will generate more commitments.

“The biggest challenge has been finding units that are safe and affordable,” Vassell said.

Partners for Home says that there are currently 102 individuals in 99 rooms at their hotel in DeKalb County used for temporarily housing the homeless. Nine rooms are still available.

They’ve placed more than 50 households into permanent housing, with more people who are waiting to move in. But until there are more units, the progress will continue to be slow.

In all, Partners for Home says that nearly 600 units are needed for the program to be successful. So far, they’ve only been able to successfully obtain about 150 units.

Partners for Home is still short of reaching its goal of closing about 10 encampments, which they aimed to do by the end of 2022. One reason the organization cites for the slow progress is that many people who are in need of housing, but don’t necessarily live at the encampment, show up when it’s scheduled to close. Right now, they don’t have the capacity to serve all these people.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Outside the tent in Mechanicsville, Jose Sandoval, who is leading the group of volunteers, is an expert in earning trust. He talks to the three men as if they were his friends. They joke and smile, and he tells them where to get additional help.

Sandoval’s day job is as the director of homelessness at Frontline Response Atlanta, a Christian-based nonprofit that helps people get off the streets. He’s worked in the role for two years, and says it’s clear the city needs to open more shelters. The hardest part, he says, is meeting parents with young families who don’t have a place to live.

“I get to go home in the afternoon,” said Sandoval. “I get to go to a warm bed.”

Rick, the man who has been homeless for about ten years, spends a lot of time in the tent that’s nestled under a large oak tree.

Rick is dreaming up plans for his future. He wants to start a construction business and is working to get a business license.

“Even if you’re in a low state of mind, you’ve got to make the best of all situations,” he said. “I have to just be focused on getting better.”