Airport wants law restricting access overnight to limit number of homeless

Credit: Christina Matacotta,

Credit: Christina Matacotta,

Hartsfield-Jackson International wants to codify into law its policy of restricting access to the airport during overnight hours, a move it made to reduce the number of homeless people showing up there.

The world’s busiest airport in 2018 announced a policy of limiting access to the facility between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., as it faced a growing issue of homeless people sleeping in the domestic terminal. During those hours, the airport only allows ticketed passengers, those assisting ticketed passengers and authorized personnel.

While Atlanta police have been enforcing the policy, city council’s approval of it as a city ordinance would provide greater clarity to the public, an airport official said.

The police department has said its main focus at the airport “is to work to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with social service agencies in effort to provide them assistance.”

Last spring, as many as 350 people were taking MARTA trains to Hartsfield-Jackson and sleeping on chairs and benches across the airport terminal.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden said the numbers are now significantly lower, on some nights ranging from 30 to 70 people. Homeless people are allowed to sleep in a vestibule area outside the terminal, with access to a portable toilet, and there are members of the security staff on hand. HOPE Atlanta staff offers transport to shelters to those who want it.

“It seems to be working fairly well,” Selden said. He said it helps to “get out of the wind, even though the temperatures are cold. It is what we have to give, by not letting them in the building while we clean it.”

Under the proposed ordinance, violators of the overnight restrictions could be fined, imprisoned for six months or face other penalties. However, airport officials have said in the past that they don’t want to criminalize homelessness. Those who commit crimes will be removed from the airport. Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis in 2019 started a homeless court program to resolve minor offenses.

The city council transportation committee on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of sending the proposed airport hours ordinance to the full council for approval.

Selden said he sees the ordinance as a way “to give our police the tools they need to keep our airport safe and clean.”