City of Atlanta begins clearing homeless bridge encampments

More closures to follow but city’s first stop was a site between Buford Highway and I-85
Atlanta Police and GDOT personnel clear a homeless encampment Monday.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Atlanta Police and GDOT personnel clear a homeless encampment Monday.

The city’s crackdown on homeless bridge encampments began in earnest Monday morning with police officers, Georgia Department of Transportation personnel, and outreach workers descending on a site off Buford Highway.

The encampment near Cheshire Bridge, between Buford Highway and I-85, is the first stop in a series of planned sweeps. City officials say they are a public safety hazard because in the past fires beneath the bridges have spiraled out of control. Unhoused people sometimes start fires beneath the bridges to stay warm.

State workers and subcontractors dismantled fencing and picked up trash. Nearby, a handful of camp residents took down tents and gathered their possessions. Outreach workers from the advocacy group Frontline Response and the Church of the Redeemer were also present.

Matt Welch, 34, who goes by “Matty Ice,” was at the encampment on Monday taking down his tent and preparing to move to a temporary shelter at the former Athletic Club of the Atlanta Medical Center. He said officials told him that he was allowed to take three bags of belongings.

He said police officers and officials were giving him time to gather his things before he would have to leave later in the day, and caseworkers told him that he could expect showers, complimentary food and a place to wash clothes at the shelter. He said he hoped the city would help him find permanent housing.

“There’s a lot of stuff here that’s getting left behind, unfortunately,” he said during a phone interview. “But I’m trying to get most of the stuff that can be usable or someone else could use or I could sell to somebody so I can get enough money to eat.”

Atlanta Police Department Major Jeff Cantin led the sweep. He said at least six people were present at the encampment on Monday.

“It’s all going to be cleaned out,” Cantin said, declining to answer questions about which encampment would be next. “We’ll be here for a couple of days.”

By the afternoon, workers driving forklift trucks had largely cleared the spot adjacent to the bridge where Welch had been standing. But it looked like there was still much work to be done in a stretch of the encampment beneath the bridge.

In an interview with the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board earlier this month, Mayor Andre Dickens warned the city would crack down on the bridge encampments after several fires had spun out of control. One such blaze led to the closure of Cheshire Bridge Road in 2021.

Dickens’ press secretary Michael Smith referred the AJC to a statement his office made last week. It described the Athletic Club of the Atlanta Medical Center as a temporary emergency shelter.

The city was moving forward with longer-term housing options, according to the mayor’s office, like a project in South Downtown called The Melody, featuring cargo containers that were converted into livable spaces.

“This will be a compassionate operation, with a variety of services offered to our unsheltered population — including housing options, medical care and other services tailored to the unique needs of those we are serving,” the mayor’s office said in the statement.

The city has refused to answer questions about which bridge encampments it has targeted or how many people will be displaced.

Brad Schweers, executive director of Intown Cares, a nonprofit providing services to the homeless, said last week that the city appeared to be working on an accelerated timeline. But that was “totally understandable” because of the risks bridge fires pose, he said.

In December, there was a fire at a site under Cheshire Bridge Road, which damaged a bridge and led to a road closure. Smoke and fires have caused temporary shutdowns on portions of Buford Highway. In 2017, a fire led to the collapse of part of the I-85 north overpass.

Dickens said at the editorial board meeting that the problem “impacts schools, it impacts commerce, and it impacts people’s lives.”

Atlanta Police and GDOT officials clear the site of a homeless encampment Monday.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink