The City of Atlanta announced Tuesday that it wants to remove homeless camps as part of its ongoing efforts to find permanent housing solutions. And the timing — less than three weeks before Atlanta hosts the Super Bowl — has nothing do with the big game, the mayor’s office said.
“The intent here is to not arrest anyone,” Patrick Labat, chief of the Atlanta Department of Corrections, told reporters on a conference call.
Tuesday’s announcement came three days after a report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on four recent deaths in the city due to hypothermia, or abnormally cold body temperature, including three homeless people. So far, fewer people have frozen to death in Atlanta this winter season compared to last, when at least 11 deaths were blamed on hypothermia, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office. But more cold weather is forecast before winter ends.
Bottoms’ office ended the 30-minute call abruptly, leaving many reporters’ questions unanswered and promising to follow-up with others.
Labat said that since December, his department has made contact with 1,027 homeless people in an effort to get them off the streets. But only 361 people wanted the city’s help, including transportation to a warming center, he said. In late December, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that city leaders would open emergency warming shelters when temperatures hit 32 degrees, rather than the previous criteria of 25 degrees or below 32 degrees with snow or freezing rain. Tuesday night, the city opened a warming center at the Old Adamsville Recreation Center.
The city has said it has 458 emergency beds available for the homeless. A recent survey put Atlanta’s homeless population at roughly 3,000. The mayor’s office said late Tuesday that more beds can become available as the temperature plummets but did not say how many. No one is being turned away from shelters due to lack of space, the city said.
Atlanta will spend $22 million to build 550 housing units in the coming years aimed at providing permanent homes for homeless people, according to Cathryn Marchman, executive director of Partners for Home. Partners for Home was created in 2013 and leads the city’s efforts to address homelessness. The city has several full-time employees whose jobs involve constant outreach among the homeless, Marchman said.
Although being homeless isn’t illegal, city leaders said camping is against the law. Atlanta police have arrested approximately 40 people for urban camping during the past two years, according to Carlos Campos, APD spokesman.
“If they are violating a law, they will be arrested for violating a law,” Campos said during the conference call. “There are laws that are applicable to everybody and it doesn’t matter what your residential status is.”
Wednesday morning, a spokesman for the mayor's office emailed the city ordinance on urban camping to The AJC. The ordinance states the "use of a street, sidewalk, other right-of-way, and/or any area underneath a bridge" for living accommodations is illegal. Police must give a person oral or written warning before making an arrest, the ordinance states.
Former State Senator Vincent Fort, a frequent critic of Bottoms’ administration, said the city’s announcement was too close to the Super Bowl for the two to not be related. The game will cast a bright spotlight on Atlanta.
“It’s too much of a coincidence,” Fort said.
Fort called the clearing of homeless camps “variation on ethnic cleansing.”
“It’s shameful,” he said.
- Staff writer Stephen Deere contributed to this report.