Brown said that would give the homeless more time to leave before MARTA stops operating each night, “so that they were not removed from the airport with nowhere to go.”
MARTA said the stricter enforcement and closing the airport earlier merely shifts the homeless to trains. When airport police escorted more than 100 homeless people into the terminal transit station one April night, MARTA police encountered them and others on trains riding without a destination, MARTA chief of staff Melissa Mullinax said in a letter to city council members. It says during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, MARTA received increasing complaints about people “loitering, sleeping on trains for multiple trips and disturbances on the trains.”
“People are so quick to say what they don’t want, but you know, if an unsheltered passenger has a pass to get onto MARTA, they should be allowed onto MARTA, period,” Brown said.
Hartsfield-Jackson spokeswoman Elise Durham said the airport, which would make the call on changing operating hours, is “assessing the option.”
MARTA moved ahead with its own plan. It began removing homeless people from trains in April and is working with the nonprofit HOPE Atlanta, the airport’s homeless outreach contractor, working at a train station on the south end of downtown to connect the homeless with shelter or services.
The city also stepped up, contributing $1.5 million to house homeless people at high risk of COVID-19 in a hotel. City spokesman Michael Smith said coordination between agencies, nonprofits and shelters has helped to keep infection rates low and provide safe places for the homeless to quarantine.
Brown’s plan offers other services, but faces challenges, including lack of funding. It calls for testing for COVID-19 before the homeless at the airport are relocated to housing.
That’s tough, Brown said, because, “you need the rapid testing and the rapid testing in the city is very limited.”
The plan calls for on-site counseling at the airport.
“We’re working on obtaining the funding to do that,” said Brown, whose office has donated masks and gloves to distribute to the homeless at the airport.
Another constant challenge in providing help is that those who are coping with substance abuse and mental health issues often refuse to go to a shelter or hotel.
HOPE Atlanta’s executive director Jeff Smythe said he thinks some of the hundreds who used to sleep at the airport simply moved elsewhere.
“It’s certainly not feeling as chaotic and dangerous at the airport, but on the other hand, is it more chaotic and dangerous in other areas? Perhaps.”