East Atlanta Village invests in help for its unhoused residents

The community raised tens of thousands of dollars to hire a case manager for the neighborhood
Michael Nolan, case manager for nonprofit Intown Cares, stands for a portrait in the heart of East Atlanta Village on Oct. 12, 2023. Nolan will be spearheading a new pilot program in the neighborhood to make connections with individuals experiencing homelessness and help get them housed. (Riley Bunch/riley.bunch@ajc.com)

Credit: Riley Bunch/AJC

Credit: Riley Bunch/AJC

Michael Nolan, case manager for nonprofit Intown Cares, stands for a portrait in the heart of East Atlanta Village on Oct. 12, 2023. Nolan will be spearheading a new pilot program in the neighborhood to make connections with individuals experiencing homelessness and help get them housed. (Riley Bunch/riley.bunch@ajc.com)

On what would have been a regular Tuesday in October, Michael Nolan woke up to some very good news. A social services case manager, Nolan was notified that one of his clients living on the streets in East Atlanta Village was approved for a housing voucher.

“He was very excited and he asked if I thought I could help him get a job,” Nolan recalled. “And I said: ‘Well, I can help you get an interview.’”

His client was nervous. He hadn’t had a haircut or a shave in months. But Nolan and the neighborhood stepped in. Nolan took him to the First Class Barber Shop in the heart of East Atlanta Village to spruce him up.

The enhanced support for unhoused residents in East Atlanta is part of a pilot program through Intown Cares, a local nonprofit organization, that aims to target homelessness through a dedicated case manager.

That counselor spends 40 hours a week on the ground making connections with unhoused residents and helping them get a roof over their heads.

Nolan’s client — who interviewed at a fast food restaurant on Moreland Avenue just across from the village — is a person who will benefit from the hands-on program.

“He looked fantastic,” Nolan said. “He was cleaned up, presentable and ready for his interview.”

But the task of helping unhoused residents is far from easy. Community leaders say individuals experiencing homelessness are hesitant to receive help while drug dealers have been preying on the neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents living on the streets.

“The overlay of homelessness and substance use in East Atlanta Village is almost a perfect circle of a Venn diagram,” said Katie Farmer, director of development for Intown Cares.

“The substance abuse epidemic in EAV is really scary right now — especially because there are dealers that are targeting the unhoused population,” she said.

The problem is so pervasive that, for the first time, the nonprofit, community, City Council and Atlanta Mayor Dickens administration all took on a portion of the cost to get the program up and running.

Within less than a couple of weeks, neighborhood residents raised $20,000 to put toward a salary for the new case manager. City Council members Liliana Bakhtiari and Matt Westmoreland donated $20,000 while the city took on the remaining $60,000 price tag.

The year-long role includes face-to-face conversations with the neighborhood’s most vulnerable populations, compiling the necessary paperwork to get them into housing, and helping connect them to medical and career resources.

For neighborhood leaders, it’s a crucial step in combating homelessness in the area long-term. Chase Miller, president of the East Atlanta Community Association, said that “it’s just the right thing to do.”

“Part of our purpose is to build a thriving community where neighbors help each other and we support our neighbors during the good times and the bad,” Miller said. “These are our neighbors.”

A familiar face

Nolan has spent the better part of two decades visiting some of the harshest places in Atlanta — from city blocks with the highest rates of violent crime to drug houses where individuals struggling with substance abuse go to buy drugs or sleep off a high.

A trauma specialist and addiction counselor, Nolan specializes in the connections between homelessness, unmet mental health needs and addiction. And now, the East Atlanta resident — also in long-term recovery himself — will serve as his neighborhood’s case manager through the program with Intown Cares.

The nonprofit organization that focuses on housing and food access for Atlantans has helped house more than 1,000 residents experiencing homelessness since 2016.

“We’ve been met with nothing but support all the way around because the people in East Atlanta want East Atlanta to be livable, healthy and a positive place for everyone to live,” he said.

Nolan starts his day in the new role by taking a drive around the neighborhood. He visits the places in the village where residents experiencing homelessness sleep and congregate. He makes a note if someone isn’t in their regular spot or if he comes across a new face.

He checks on any encampments — the parking lot of the vacant Long John Silver’s on Moreland Avenue and another in a nearby public park. When he stops by Eastside Church in the mornings, he said, he makes a cup of coffee for anyone outside.

“A huge part of my job is just talking to people,” Nolan said. “Just finding out who they are. I started making coffee because if someone doesn’t want to come in and talk to me — coffee is the icebreaker.”

Nolan and others who work with the homeless say that the biggest obstacle is often trust.

“People on the street are very resistant to trust anyone because they’re lied to all the time,” Nolan said. “They’re ignored all the time. They’re told `no` constantly. So it takes time to let them get to know me, so they trust me enough so that I get to know them.”

Nolan already has around 30 clients in the village he’s actively working to get housed. When an individual agrees to work with him, it kicks off the months-long process to try to get that person “document ready.”

To be eligible for housing assistance in Fulton County, an individual needs a copy of their birth certificate, social security card, state I.D., tuberculosis test and a homeless verification letter from a nonprofit organization.

“You need to have that type of consistency if you want to engage people who the system has been just like a turnstile for them,” said City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari, who represents the area.

Nolan said that process can take anywhere from six months to two years. But his first client in East Atlanta had all their documents in 32 days — a rare success.

“And when you’re dealing with someone that has mental health conditions, today, they’re willing to do everything, but tomorrow, they don’t want to talk to you,” he said. “So it’s always pushing forward to get things accomplished.”

East Atlanta Village community leaders along with Council member Liliana Bakhtiari celebrate the more than $20,000 raised by the community to support their case manager pilot program.

Credit: Courtesy of Council member Liliana Bakhtiari

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Credit: Courtesy of Council member Liliana Bakhtiari

‘Any neighborhood can do this’

The neighborhood’s beloved yearly festival, the East Atlanta Strut, took on the role of helping fundraise $20,000 from the community for the program just a couple of weeks before the event was scheduled to take place.

“We’ve seen the homeless situation right in front of us every day,” said Strut organizer Michelle Rice. “And we realized something needed to be done more than donating food or handing out supplies.”

Program funds will also be used for training business owners and residents on what to do when they see a homeless person experiencing crisis. The education portion for local businesses, Nolan said, is crucial to mitigating escalation.

“It’s all just very hands on,” Nolan said. “Walking into the businesses and having conversations with them, letting them know this is what I’m here for, if you have an issue, call or text me even if it’s outside of hours.”

Bakhtiari has big dreams to put a case manager in all of Atlanta’s communities to help house residents while, at the same time, ending stigmas surrounding homelessness, mental health struggles and substance abuse.

“The community has to pitch in because of the amount of misinformation and stereotypes that exist and a lot of the prejudice that exists against poverty,” she said.

Ishita Chordia is a doctoral student focused on crime and safety in neighborhoods. When she moved to East Atlanta in March, she said, she approached the community association and asked how she could help.

“Homelessness is an issue around the country and it’s heartbreaking to see the same people again and again,” she said. “It’s hard to keep walking by people saying, ‘no cash today’ and you could have that same interaction every day for years.”

Chordia hopes other communities across Atlanta feel empowered to take similar action.

“Any neighborhood can do this,” she said.