Homeless spending night at Hartsfield-Jackson prompts police monitoring

Men sleep in the domestic terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Friday, February 7, 2020, in Atlanta. Many of Atlanta’s homeless sleep overnight in the airport’s domestic terminal when the city experiences frigid temperatures. (Christina Matacotta/crmatacotta@gmail.com)

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Men sleep in the domestic terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Friday, February 7, 2020, in Atlanta. Many of Atlanta’s homeless sleep overnight in the airport’s domestic terminal when the city experiences frigid temperatures. (Christina Matacotta/crmatacotta@gmail.com)

When the weather turns frigid in metro Atlanta, airport officials know what to prepare for:

Flight delays. Maybe cancellations. Homeless people.

What to do with the men and women who make their way to large public facilities to escape the cold is a complicated issue at Hartsfield-Jackson International, just as it is everywhere else. Airport personnel want to discourage homeless people from gathering in baggage claim and the food court. But they don't want to go too far and criminalize attempts to stay warm.

Two years ago, the airport announced a new policy to restrict overnight access between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., allowing only authorized personnel, ticketed passengers, and people meeting, accompanying or assisting passengers. That helped, but it didn't eliminate the problem.

Then, the airport enlisted HOPE Atlanta, also known as Travelers Aid Metro Atlanta, to assist the homeless in finding temporary shelter elsewhere. But sometimes people want the help; sometimes they don't, said Jeff Smythe, executive director for the nonprofit. And sometimes shelters have room; sometimes they don't.

Now, in yet another attempt to reduce the number of folks who take MARTA to the airport to sleep there, the Atlanta Police Department is increasing its presence at the airport. The police department declined to release specific numbers on its increased patrols. “APD has been very mindful of the influx of the residentially challenged and have, in fact, stepped up their patrols in the airport to help manage the issue,” airport spokeswoman Elise Durham said in an email.

At the same time, though, police and airport officials don’t really think they can arrest their way out of the problem, nor do they want to.

“We don’t want to discriminate against folks,” said Steve Mayers, director of customer experience at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Those who commit crimes will be removed. But, he said, “We’re not here to criminalize homelessness. We have to operate within the rights of the individuals.”

Still, said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden, “You’re not allowed to lodge in the airport.”

Some incidents already have caused alarm.

In early January, a man stole luggage from Delta baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson, according to a police report. He was allegedly seen at curbside, ripping off the tag on a roller bag and throwing it in the trash. Police apprehended the man, who “had a razor on him and a hatchet in his book bag,” the report said. The man was charged with theft and issued a criminal trespass warning.

In another incident in November, a passenger at the Atlanta airport was allegedly punched in the mouth by a panhandler, according to a police report. There had been no communication between the two, police said. The panhandler was charged with battery, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

The altercations are “worrisome,” said Smythe.

Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos said the main focus of police at the airport “is to work to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with social service agencies in effort to provide them assistance.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued other government officials in Georgia for jailing the poor over minor offenses like loitering.

Police are limited in what they can do, said Vince Champion, Southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. Officers have “really not been allowed to remove the homeless,” he said. And, “once MARTA stops running, they’re kind of stuck there. Where do we move them? … That is the other issue. What do you do? You take them out to the parking lot?”

When homeless people are cited for crimes, they may be referred by the court to a new program launched late last year by Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis.

The homeless court program resolves minor offenses that are often a result of homelessness. Those who enter the program could receive treatment for substance abuse, mental illness and medical issues. The program also tries to assist homeless people in finding housing and job skills, as well as reuniting with family members, getting ID and registering for benefits.

It's hard to get a handle of how many homeless people end up at the airport. But Smythe said, "We seem to see more people going to the airport" to sleep overnight. That's not ideal for anyone."

HOPE Atlanta attempts a census, but workers count only those that they’ve talked to and confirmed are homeless. So, those who refuse to talk aren’t counted. On a nightly basis, HOPE Atlanta reaches out to more than 100 people at the airport who may be homeless, according to Smythe. From November through January, the organization engaged with a total of 424 different people.

Meanwhile, officers arrested 18 homeless people at the airport, including nine for criminal trespass and two for loitering from January 1 through January 25, Atlanta police said. That’s up from 15 in the same period of last year. In all of 2019, the Atlanta Police Department had 79 arrests of homeless people at the airport, including 52 for criminal trespass. Officers dealt with many more who were not taken into custody.

Trespass arrests may occur when people are disorderly or harass passengers, show up repeatedly and refuse to be connected with service providers, according to Campos.

“Connecting them with social services is our most viable solution because it allows us to seek longterm solutions. Arresting them repeatedly is not a longterm solution,” Campos said.

Mayers noted that homelessness is an issue not only at the airport and in the city of Atlanta, “but across the country.”

HOPE Atlanta has a shuttle — usually making two runs a night — to transport homeless people to downtown shelters.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in December that at least 18 homeless people have died from hypothermia since the closure of Atlanta's Peachtree-Pine in August 2017.

The Peachtree-Pine shelter was known as a "low-barrier" shelter, accepting anyone in need, including chronic alcoholics who not permitted to stay at other shelters.

At the airport, the biggest challenge for officers is dealing with homeless men and women who have mental health problems, Champion said.

“We’d love to be able to get them out of there before we have to get into those confrontations,” he said.

That’s easier said than done.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think it’s one person’s fault,” Champion said. “I don’t think there’s anybody not trying to solve the problem. I think it’s just we haven’t got there yet.”

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