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Homeless population drops in Atlanta, but families may get overlooked

By late October, the concrete is no longer scorching from Georgia’s summer heat. In the coming weeks, dipping temperatures will freeze the sidewalks and thin blankets will do little to fight the numbing cold.

But for hundreds of Atlanta’s homeless, the pavement is the only choice.

“There aren’t enough beds in the city for the amount of people in the city,” Rachel Reynolds with Atlanta Mission told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta’s homeless population was 3,076 in January when the annual “Point in Time Count” of the city’s homeless was conducted — a 14 percent drop from the 2017 count, according to the city. Since 2015, the homeless population has dropped 29 percent, data shows. Based on the numbers alone, it appears the city is combating the problem and getting people off the streets. But homeless advocates say the city’s shelters are packed to capacity and must turn people away daily.

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They also point to a large segment of the homeless population often is not included in the official count: Families.

“So often, families are the hidden homeless,” Dennis Bowman, executive director for the Nicholas House said. “They are not always as visible as others because of the children.”

Sheltering families

Every night, 300 people — including children and their parents — find shelter at Nicholas House, Bowman said. It’s the only Atlanta shelter that will accept families, he said, and all types of families are welcomed. There are couples, single parents with children, and even large families with teenagers, he said.

“We’re always at capacity,” Bowman said. “The need is still great.”

But homeless families aren’t always included in Atlanta’s yearly counts because they aren’t typically sleeping outdoors or in a shelter. Instead, homeless families may sleep in cars or move from home to home without a permanent residence, Bowman said.

“Families are significantly under-counted because of the definition of what homelessness is,” he said.

A Georgia State University student passes by two homeless men huddled on a grate blowing warm air on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The number of homeless women and children continues to rise, and they aren’t what comes to mind when most people think about homeless people, Reynolds said.

“If you’re couch-surfing, you’re homeless,” she said. “It’s not just the person walking around Centennial Olympic Park.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, requires Atlanta conduct the Point in Time, or PIT, count every two years. But Atlanta gathers the data every year to better gauge how the city is tackling homelessness, according to Cathryn Marchman, executive director for Partners for Home. The organization was created in 2013 under former Mayor Kasim Reed and and works with government, nonprofit and business leaders to combat homelessness.

In January, hundreds of volunteers conducted the PIT count in Atlanta, and the count will take place again next January. The definition of homelessness used by the government means some without permanent addresses won’t be counted, Marchman said.

For HUD, sleeping on a friend’s couch does not qualify as homeless and wouldn’t be included in the count, Marchman said. If families are missed during the count, it may be because they are sleeping in cars, she said. But Marchman doesn’t agree families are frequently overlooked.

“The majority of our families experiencing homelessness are in emergency family shelter,” she said.

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But most shelters are not set up for families. The Atlanta Mission runs four shelters, taking in an average of 1,000 people each night, Reynolds said. In 2017, the four shelters housed 8,000 different people, she said.

The Atlanta Mission runs The Shepherd’s Inn, which has room for 450 men, and My Sister’s House, a 264-bed facility for women and children. The Potter’s House, located in Jefferson, can house up to 180 men while offering treatment for drug addiction, according to the Atlanta Mission.

In August 2017, Atlanta’s biggest shelter, located at Peachtree and Pine streets, closed its doors after losing a well-publicized battle with the city to remain open. Since 1997, the shelter took in hundreds of people a night, but it was also the backdrop to deadly shootings and tuberculosis outbreaks. The city transitioned those that were willing into permanent housing, but others went to shelters that were already at capacity. Atlanta Mission shelters added 50 beds for former Peachtree-Pine shelter residents, Reynolds said.

Another shelter, the Gateway Center, offers beds for more than 300 men, according to its website, but may shelter women when temperatures are below freezing. There are other transitional housing options, along with ministry-based groups, but most are not family-oriented.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, left, introduces Terri Ward, a longtime senior leader in the city’s planning department, as Atlanta’s first chief housing officer on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

That makes it even more important that the social services offered at places like the Nicholas House spark change. The goal is self-sufficiency and ending the cycle of poverty, Bowman said.

“We don’t ever want to see them again,” Reynolds said. “Not because we don’t love them. This is just a circumstance in their life. We want them to thrive.”

Ending homelessness

The snapshot count of Atlanta’s homeless isn’t perfect, Marchman said. But it gives the city a glimpse of the vulnerable population.

Despite the shortage of beds for the city’s homeless, advocates agree that the outlook is not entirely bleak. Recent changes and programs to help the homeless population are making a difference, though more is needed.

“The fact that our overall number (of homeless) is down a pretty substantial amount is good news,” Marchman said. “We’re at 14 percent overall reduction, and compared to some other cities that are creeping up or are experiencing rapid increase, this was really, really promising for us.”

Shelter leaders like Bowman agree.

“We are truly in the best position to address family homelessness in metro Atlanta than we have ever been in before,” Bowman said. “Now we just need the resources and access to affordable housing.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is doing her part after campaigning on a promise of creating a $1 billion public-private affordable housing fund to spur new housing options for lower income residents and preserve existing affordable units. Last week, she appointed the city’s first chief housing officer, Terri Lee.

In the meantime, Marchman’s organization is working on efforts to access real-time data to better monitor the city’s homeless population. That work continues year-round, but as winter approaches, there is a urgent incentive to get people off the streets, she said. The city’s shelters and emergency services work together to prepare for the coldest days of the year.

Last winter, during a seven-week period between December and January, 11 people froze to death in Fulton County, including eight who were homeless, according to the medical examiner. 

“Certainly we always want to be well-prepared for winter time,” Marchman said. “We don’t want anyone dying outside.”

HOMELESSNESS IN ATLANTA

2015: 4317

2016: 4063

2017: 3572

2018: 3076

Source: Point-in-time Count

HOW TO HELP

Here are some organizations to contact if you would like to help:

Atlanta Mission

https://atlantamission.org

404-588-4000

Gateway Center

www.gatewayctr.org

404-215-6600

Nicholas House

https://nicholashouse.org

404-622-0793

Partners for Home

https://partnersforhome.org

404-546-1810

SafeHouse

www.safehouseoutreach.org

404-523-2221

United Way of Greater Atlanta

www.unitedwayatlanta.org

404-527-7200

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