A strong police presence for the upcoming Super Bowl in Atlanta is likely to result in the arrest of more homeless people, say social service advocates who are pushing for officials to open a daytime diversion center for those with nowhere to go.
The need for such a center transcends the Super Bowl, the advocates say, but that event increases the urgency — especially with the closure of the Central Atlanta library, where many homeless residents spent days on computers or just away from the elements.
“The sheer number of officers means there’s a higher likelihood that people will be arrested for quality of life issues,” said Moki Macias, executive director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion program. “At this point, Atlanta is so limited in options people can walk into and be safe during the day.”
The vision for the center is twofold, both as a place where homeless people feel comfortable hanging out and a place where they can be connected with mental health, housing and other resources.It would remain open long after the big game is over.
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The 11,000-square-foot building, owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, wouldn’t need to have beds, and wouldn’t be used to house the homeless, advocates say.
“It’s harm reduction,” George Chidi, with Central Atlanta Progress, told the authority at a recent meeting. “Rather than be on a street corner, on a street being disruptive, they’re playing PlayStation and eating snacks on a couch in a place where they’re going to be safe.”
LaTrina Foster, Fulton County’s director of behavioral health and developmental disabilities, said she sees the Fanplex site as a one-stop shop to connect people with primary care providers. It would be modeled after facilities in other cities.
Macias said without such a center, she’s concerned homeless people will end up in jail — especially around the Super Bowl.
“That’s the risk,” she said. “Without another plan, it’s sort of bound to happen.”
Sgt. John Chafee, with the Atlanta Police Department, acknowledged there’s a likelihood that, with the Super Bowl in town, more people will complain about panhandling, public urination and other issues that involve the homeless. He said APD would not be running details targeting the homeless before the game, but will respond to calls. In many cases, he said, a person will receive a citation, but could be arrested or directed to the Pre-Arrest Diversion program if that’s more appropriate.
Advocates for the homeless would like to see a facility opened weeks before the Super Bowl, though Cathryn Marchman, the executive director for Partners for HOME, said she wasn’t sure if it could be done in time. Fulton County commissioners who are on the Rec Authority say the facility, the groups’ top choice, has already been rented out for the event.
“It’s really a matter of the stars aligning,” she said. “It’s still, really, a work in progress.”
Marvin Arrington, a Fulton County commissioner and member of the authority, said in addition to the facility being rented, there had been other requests for its use. The board would need to have two specially called meetings before the game to approve a proposal. And likely, he said, the authority wants to sell the building for a profit — not lease it out for cheap.
None of that has deterred the advocates. While other locations are being considered, Chidi said if the authority allows homeless people to use the Fanplex, his group could pay to rent another facility for the person or organization that currently has a rental agreement for the Super Bowl.
“The only question I’ve got is whether we can move fast enough,” he said.
Mary Gay, presidents of the community organization Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, said she wanted to get more information before forming an opinion on the proposal.
For her part, Macias thinks it’s what’s best.
“We need the center,” Macias said. “I think it should be the highest priority for the city.”
Staff writer Scott Trubey contributed to this story.