For more than 25 years, Petonio Griggs lived on the Atlanta streets.
“He had been out there since he was teenager,” said a man who had tried to help. Griggs had no high school diploma and was also addicted to drugs and alcohol, according to Marshall Rancifer, who founded the Justice for All Coalition to help homeless people said The two men met years ago when both were homeless.
“He was kicked at every turn,” Rancifer said.
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On Jan. 15, Griggs was found frozen to death on an Atlanta sidewalk, his shirtless body wrapped in blankets. He was 45.
Griggs was the 11th person in Fulton County to die from hypothermia — or abnormally cold body temperature — since Dec. 1, according to the Medical Examiner. Eight of those who died from hypothermia were homeless.
The number of people freezing to death on Atlanta streets has declined since 2014, when 18 people died, Dr. Jan Gorniak said. That same year, an epic snowstorm caught the metro area unprepared. But this year’s deaths are raising concerns about how the city provides for its homeless population and whether more can be done. Both government leaders and community groups agree the recent homeless deaths could have been prevented.
“It’s extremely disturbing to me to find that people have literally died in ours streets due to the literal lack of shelter,” Michael Bond, Atlanta city councilman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “It just makes me feel empty.”
Atlanta’s homeless population has declined in recent years. But in an exceptionally cold and snowy winter — and just months after the closure of the Peachtree-Pine shelter that housed as many as 500 people — the hypothermia deaths are a stark reminder that the current efforts aren’t enough.
“It’s an opportunity that we have as a city and community to really help people that are hurting 365 days a years,” Josh Bray, CEO of SafeHouse Outreach, said. “Unfortunately, it seems like only during the season of giving and when the temperatures are freezing do the general masses really care.”
Coming in from the cold
There are several homeless shelters in Atlanta, offering hundreds of beds to those in need. The Atlanta Mission runs two: 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. The Gateway Center offers beds for more than 300 men, according to its website, but may shelter women when temperatures are below freezing.
Additionally, there are many transitional housing options, including the Nicholas House, which offers help specifically for families, plus churches and other ministry-based organizations.
Before the coldest winter weather arrives, the plans are already in place to get people off the streets and indoors, according to Cathryn Marchman, executive director for Atlanta’s Partners for Home. The city’s shelters are the first option, and when those beds are gone, temporary warming centers are the next choice.
“We have facilities that open up their doors at night, even just with chairs so people can get relief from the cold,” Marchman said.
During the recent snow storm, warming shelters opened in Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb counties, offering temporary relief from the cold. Across the metro area, fire stations and recreation centers also are made available for several hours or overnight.
Partners for Hope was created in 2013 under former Mayor Kasim Reed and now leads Atlanta’s efforts to end homelessness by working with government, nonprofit and business leaders. This week, Marchman’s team and several hundred volunteers hit the streets to count the homeless population.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, requires the city conduct the count every two years. But Atlanta gathers the data every year to gauge how the city is tackling the homelessness problem, Marchman said. It’s a time-consuming process and the final numbers aren’t released to the public until summer.
“Our numbers continue to trend downwards, which is really good news,” she said.
In January 2017, the homeless population in Atlanta was 3,572, including nearly 700 who were on the streets, rather than a shelter or transitional housing, according to Partners for Home data. The previous year, the total count was 4,063, down from 4,317 in 2015. In January 2013, the city’s homeless population was 5,536.
Statewide, an additional 3,716 people were homeless in January 2017, a decrease of 37 percent from the previous January, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
The deaths blamed on cold weather weren’t limited to downtown Atlanta.
In Cobb County, investigators believe hypothermia may have also contributed to three additional deaths in December. And on Dec. 19, one person died from hypothermia in Butts County, about 55 miles southeast of Atlanta, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
But it’s not always as simple as taking homeless people to shelters, Marchman said. Some people decline shelter even when temperatures hit the single digits.
“We do the best we can for folks that refuse to come in,” Marchman said.
Some refuse help
In another recent case, a 58-year-old woman was found frozen to death on a sidewalk at Memorial Drive and Pryor Street, just steps away from Gateway Center, according to an Atlanta police report.
It’s not known whether the woman asked for help at Gateway. Investigators have identified the woman, but have not yet located her family.
Even when taking shelter seems to be a choice between life and death, mental illness and addiction prevent some homeless people from accepting help, say those who operate shelters.
In late November, the final residents left the downtown Peachtree-Pine shelter at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets. The shelter 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. Central Atlanta Progress purchased the building that housed the shelter, and in August the city began transitioning residents to other places.
All of the Peachtree-Pine residents were offered permanent housing, Marchman said, and many took the city up on the offer. But not everyone.
“We lost a handful along the way,” Marchman said. “There were certainly people at Pine when we came in that didn’t trust that we were going to have things to offer them.”
SafeHouse Outreach is one of the groups dedicated not only to getting people off the streets and serving hot meals, but also helping them become self-sufficient and rebuild their lives, according to Bray, the organization’s CEO.
“If you’re on the streets three days, you can get off sometimes in a day,” Bray said.
“Obstacles build on each other. If we can catch you soon, we can minimize those obstacles and potentially get you a better result sooner rather than later.”
A “cold case” is a criminal investigation where all leads have been exhausted and the case remains unsolved. Cold cases are sometimes solved because someone had the courage to come forward and provide a new detail to investigators. To read more about Georgia’s unsolved homicides and missing person cases go to myAJC.com/coldcases.
But finding temporary warmth in the city’s shelters isn’t a feasible option for everyone. There are rules to follow, including being off drugs for 72 hours before entering, according to guidelines on the Atlanta Mission website. Many shelters have curfews and specific schedules for residents.
“I think folks who are prone to mental illness challenges probably have a more difficult time, even if they are able to access a shelter, being able to depend on having a relationship with that shelter for a period of time,” Bonds, Post 1 at-large councilman, said this week.
Through his outreach efforts, Marshall Rancifer has met hundreds of people living on the streets and offered help. But not everyone wants to turn to shelters, even on the coldest nights of the year. And those with mental illness or drug addiction may get black-listed from shelters unable to provide medical or clinical help, Rancifer said. That was the case with Griggs, the man who froze to death on a Lower Wall Street sidewalk.
With several weeks of winter left to go, meteorologists have warned more frigid temperatures and snow are a possibility. The collaboration between government and other community groups is crucial, according to city leaders and advocates, to keep Atlanta’s vulnerable homeless population safe. Major improvements won’t happen overnight, Bond said.
“It’s so broad and so deep that we’re going to need some extra help to finally resolve it,” he said. “When you think about the enormity of this, it can really keep you up at night. No matter how much you do, it’s still not enough.”