Crews leveled an Atlanta homeless camp. Here’s what happened to residents

Santiago Murat cooks a meal at his Atlanta apartment on Tuesday, February 27, 2023. Murat, who had lived on The Hill, one of the biggest homeless encampments in Atlanta, now has an apartment of his own through a program with the city. Matt Kempner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Matthew.Kempner /

Credit: Matthew.Kempner /

Santiago Murat cooks a meal at his Atlanta apartment on Tuesday, February 27, 2023. Murat, who had lived on The Hill, one of the biggest homeless encampments in Atlanta, now has an apartment of his own through a program with the city. Matt Kempner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Rudolph “Pops” Earley cried recalling how his life has changed in the last 15 months. The 69-year-old Army veteran had been homeless on The Hill, one of the biggest and most dangerous encampments in Atlanta.

He thinks of the camaraderie he shared with those around him in the woods along I-85 near the Ga. 400 exchange. He reminisces about looking up through the treetops at the stars late at night. He also remembers the gunshots, people being beaten, the rats and the cold.

“I was always proud of myself that I was a survivor. I saw I could make something out of nothing,” he said. But in the middle of that, “boy, there was some darkness up there.”

Not anymore.

The Hill is gone.

Atlanta police cleared everyone from the encampment in late 2022. Then city crews swept through, eliminating tents, ragtag shelters, abandoned personal belongings and mounds of trash. Workers also removed every tree and every bush. The Hill is now scraped dirt and dried grasses.

Drone photos of “The Hill” in Atlanta on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. A large community of homeless people camped on this location until the city moved them out and crews for the state DOT bulldozed the once wooded site. (Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

The sweep of The Hill was just a microcosm of the city of Atlanta’s years-long campaign to get more people who are homeless into housing.

The experiences of those from The Hill highlight both the successes and setbacks of that complex effort.

Many of The Hill’s residents, like Earley, were first shuttled into government-funded hotel rooms. Suddenly, they had access to the comforts they had learned to live without: toilets, running water, doors that lock.

Some have since moved into more permanent housing and seen dramatic improvements in their health.

But, more than a year after the clearing, many who were around Earley on The Hill are still on the streets. Of the nearly 50 people who lived there, fewer than half are currently in permanent housing, according to the city’s lead agency for helping the homeless.

And a more stable living environment hasn’t solved all the financial challenges they face. Some who made it into long-term housing are still dumpster diving for items to use or sell. Still going to food pantries for groceries. And still sharing resources with each other to try to get by on limited or no income.

Just getting people to accept housing can be difficult, particularly among the many with untreated mental health issues and active drug addictions. Housing efforts are more likely to stumble if there aren’t robust efforts to quickly and proactively provide services aimed at addressing those problems.

Boosted by federal pandemic-era dollars, the city’s undertaking to house the unhoused is one of the metro area’s most ambitious.

A key goal is to move 1,500 people into residences by the end of 2024. Officials recently heralded the opening of The Melody, a downtown development offering housing for 40 in shipping containers.

And, in late February, the city announced that a new temporary shelter would open on the campus of the shuttered Atlanta Medical Center. It will take in people who are cleared as part of a new campaign to eliminate encampments under some bridges.

City officials tie the bridge-clearing push to public safety. Fires under bridges or beside roadways — sometimes blamed on people who are homeless — have shut down and damaged major thoroughfares in the city, frustrating commuters and nearby residents and business owners.

Flames factored into what happened at The Hill. The city sped up plans to close the encampment after a November 2022 blaze swept through the forested rise on the edge of Buckhead, sending smoke over the interstate and shutting Buford Highway.

’I had kind of given up’

Earley’s decline into homelessness took place in increments, as he described it. After serving in the military as a young man, he said, he worked other jobs, including in janitorial service and landscaping. He was married for a while. Along the way, he went through an eviction.

For six years, he had lived on someone’s porch. He curled up in a sleeping bag at night, but was allowed to come in to use the kitchen and bathroom.

He applied for and received Social Security. But the money wasn’t enough — and problems with his credit history were too much — for him to get approved for an apartment lease, he said. So he would rent a room in a home or briefly stay in hotels.

Eventually, he landed on The Hill. Over time, his focus on changing his circumstances faded. “I had kind of given up.”

He said he didn’t want to beg but he told himself, “I can ask for help in an indirect way.” He stood along nearby highway ramps with a sign he made. On it, he had written “Pleasure to serve” and mentioned that he was a vet.

“I would salute every car of every driver,” he said. “They started blowing their horns and saluting me back. People started sticking money out.”

In his tent on The Hill, he stored donated food in a dirty cooler pulled from the trash, hoping to keep out rats. In a metal pan, he burned pieces of foam from seat cushions to warm his shelter. With layers of tarps and a web of cords, he hoped to slow intruders from entering his tent and taking his few belongings.

Like others, he initially resisted the city’s efforts to move him from The Hill into a room at a hotel miles away in DeKalb County. He worried there would be too many rules for residents. But he thought about what he had been living without: a TV, a regular shower, the ability to wash and dry clothes easily. So he went to the hotel.

Once there, “I think I had a sort of delayed stress attack,” he said. Then he looked around. “I had a king-size bed. I had phone service. A nice closet. I had my own key going into my room in and out. I loved that. ... They had an immaculate bathroom. Marble countertop. Had a clean shower.”

For some who were hesitant to go to the hotel, by the time they changed their minds, it was too late, an advocate for the homeless said. There were no longer openings.

Others didn’t want to take the leap, said Tracy Thompson, who leads The Elizabeth Foundation, a nonprofit that helps locals who have no homes.

As crews cleared the encampment, a man nicknamed “Moss” was among the last to leave, shuttling as much as he could carry to another patch of woods nearby.

Recently, police cleared that spot, too. By then, though, the 34-year-old had already died. An autopsy report attributed his death to the combined toxic effects of methamphetamine, fentanyl and morphine.

A 34-year-old homeless woman died not long after in the same area, also of a toxic drug combination. She was 27 weeks pregnant, according to her autopsy report.

Impediments to getting off the street

Erin Frazier, whose tent and possessions burned in the fire on The Hill, said he and his girlfriend opted to go into the hotel because he was worried about her well-being. “I thought she would get mental health help,” the 30-year-old said.

But he said those services weren’t provided to her during her months in the hotel nor later when she was placed in a one-bedroom apartment in Riverdale. He said she lost that apartment when she was arrested after a fight with her mother.

The couple ended up living in woods near The Hill, moving from site to site as police warned them they would be clearing the areas soon.

“She is not stable enough to be out here,” Frazier said from the opening of his tent near Ga. 400. He craves housing, too. “I don’t want to stay on the streets. I want to get my life together.”

“I don’t ever feel clean,” he said. His last shower had been two weeks earlier.

Erin Frazier lived on The Hill, one of the largest homeless encampments in Atlanta before it was cleared in late 2022. He got housing through a city program but then ended up living back on the streets, which he said is not where he wants to be. Matt Kempner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Matt Kempner

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Credit: Matt Kempner

Partners for Home, which leads the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness, is working with other organizations to provide more intensive support for individuals with behavioral health and medical issues, said Cathryn Vassell, who heads the nonprofit.

“The reality, however, is that we continue to navigate an under-resourced mental health system, and many of our clients do not have insurance coverage since our state has yet to expand Medicaid,” she wrote in an email. “Without coverage, and access to that service revenue, providers and the people they serve are often challenged with getting the necessary services.”

Of 47 people who were counted living on The Hill at the time of the fire, 35 accepted temporary housing in the hotel, she wrote. Eighteen people from The Hill are currently in permanent housing, according to Vassell.

Some people simply left the hotel. Others, she said, “refused to work with their case manager” toward housing. Two, according to others, ended up behind bars because of outstanding criminal charges in other states.

‘I have more than I ever imagined’

Yamesha Carr, a 33-year-old mom who goes by the nickname “Diamond,” was slated to move into an apartment.

But then she was arrested and lost dibs on the housing, she said. More arrests followed.

Carr, living in a tent off a dead-end road in Buckhead and wearing an ankle monitor, said she he has to get into housing to regain custody of her two young kids. Social workers removed them from her care, she said.

She was raising her daughter and son — both under the age of 5 at the time — out near The Hill. Her son would collect wood and chop it up with a little ax. She said her kids didn’t complain much, except that her daughter didn’t like using the bucket the family turned into a makeshift toilet.

“My daughter is like a little princess, so I used to run her up to the McDonald’s or the Valero” to use a restroom, she said.

While the temporary hotel rooms were free, people “had to get their hustle on” to get money for food, Thompson said. Some worked day labor jobs if they were able or held signs beside roadways to ask for money. Others visited local food banks, though she said the hotel rooms didn’t have stoves or ovens to allow them to cook.

For those who got more permanent housing, the city’s programs typically covered rent and basic utility costs for the first 12 months in an apartment. At move-in, some residents were given welcome packages to outfit their new homes, which included a pot, a pan, dish towels, a shower curtain and a single roll of toilet paper.

Some former Hill residents became lonely and regularly went back to visit friends still living in encampments.

Some navigated the transition well. Joseph Marquis, 61, said his health has improved dramatically after getting housing, which allowed him to get out of the cold and to have easy access to drinking water. Another man, who had been working even when he was living on The Hill, got an apartment, continued to work and bought a used car.

Santiago Murat walks down the front steps of his Atlanta apartment on Tuesday, February 27, 2023. Murat, who had lived on The Hill, one of the biggest homeless encampments in Atlanta, now has an apartment of his own through a program tied to the city. Matt Kempner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Matthew.Kempner /

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Credit: Matthew.Kempner /

And Santiago Murat, who lived on The Hill until the fire struck, outfitted his southwest Atlanta apartment with wares others have donated or thrown away. He collected flower holders, paintings, a glass-doored cabinet that he says is filled with real crystal and china, a coffee table, and his favorite piece: a giant drum that doubles as a side table.

A Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1980, Murat said he wasn’t deported despite being later convicted on drug distribution charges. But he’s no longer allowed to legally hold a paying job. He said he wants to work rather than having to rely on government programs and nonprofit food pantries.

“I want to be responsible to pay for what I get,” he said.

He volunteers for organizations that help other homeless people transition into housing. His apartment is far from people he knew on The Hill, and he’s often bored.

”I do this,” he said, pointing to an ironing board in his living room. He irons jeans, shorts, everything. Murat said he’s determined to never be homeless again. “I’m not going back to the tent.”

Santiago Murat, a former homeless person at The Hill, is seen moving furniture from a storage unit to a truck on February. 20, 2023. Now, Murat lives in his apartment, and he likes volunteering with The Elizabeth Foundation, which helped get him from living on the streets to his new home.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Earley, the Army veteran, said crews arrived with furniture and appliances an hour after he moved into a government-provided apartment last year in Forest Park. He tears up talking about the experience.

“These people, in one day, had changed my entire life,” he said.

It struck him that he had an address in his own name. He said he walked outside his apartment and took it all in. “I am thanking God because I have come from living on the ground for almost two or three years. And now ... I have more than I ever imagined.”

Meanwhile, a solitary tent stood recently at the site once known as The Hill.