On a frigid December night, a homeless woman was given a blanket as she sat on an Atlanta sidewalk. It had been raining, and the 63-year-old wanted to be indoors, according to Marshall Rancifer, a homeless advocate.
“I hoped and prayed that she was going to be able to get inside,” Rancifer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That woman was already cold and shaking when I put her in the car.”
Rancifer said he drove the woman to four shelters, but the woman he knew as Lillian was turned away. The next morning, she was dead.
Ten people died from hypothermia — or abnormally cold body temperature — in Fulton County in 2018, according to the Medical Examiner’s office. Four of those deaths have been reported since October. 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.
Tracking deaths among the homeless population is difficult. The Medical Examiner’s reports don’t always indicate if the deceased was homeless, but of the four reported since October, two were listed as such. In addition, deaths among homeless people are sometimes complicated by other issues with poor health.
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It has been a mild winter so far, but forecasters say that is changing. And with several weeks of winter to go, there’s concern for how Atlanta’s homeless population will fare.
“There are signs by late this month that much cooler air will move in,” Brian Monahan, Channel 2 Action News meteorologist said. “In fact, the temperature outlook for weeks three and four (of January) from the Climate Prediction Center is for below-average temperatures.”
Earlier this week, Rancifer shared Lillian’s story with the Atlanta City Council to explain why more shelters should be opened. President Felicia Moore on Friday told The AJC that Rancifer called her on Dec. 8, frustrated at being unable to find the woman shelter. On Dec. 9, police were called to the 100 block of Peachtree Street on a report of a deceased woman in a small park area near the Georgia-Pacific building, according to an incident report. The police report did not include a name for the woman.
On Friday, Moore said when the city closed the Peachtree-Pine shelter in August 2017, there wasn’t an adequate plan in place to house the 500-plus homeless who typically stayed there each night.
“I’m not shocked at the fact that we’re seeing more homelessness on our streets because you’re taking away the one place that may have absorbed some of that population,” Moore said.
Though city leaders report the homeless population is declining and the city’s official homeless count has recorded smaller numbers since 2015, the homeless are still seen outside on cold nights in downtown.When the temperature dips to freezing, the city opens an emergency warming shelter, as it did Friday night for the third time this week. Neither the Atlanta mayor’s office nor Cathyrn Marchman, executive director for Partners for Home, responded to a request Friday for additional information about the warming centers. Partners for Home was created in 2013 and leads the city’s efforts to address homelessness.
In November, two homeless men, ages 57 and 74, died from hypothermia two days apart, according to the Fulton Medical Examiner. Another 57-year-old man froze to death Oct. 30, the ME’s office said.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in late December 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.
This week, the city opened an emergency warming shelter at the Old Adamsville Recreation Center for overnight hours, providing cots, meals and showers for either those homeless or without heat. It takes about 30 people to run the shelter, and most are city employees who volunteer their time, according to a promotional video on warming centers released by the mayor’s office. Curtis Bailey, the mayor’s director of constituent services, is shown in the video helping set up the shelter.
The center has the capacity to hold 100 men, 35 women and 10 families. In a December press release, the city reported there are a total of 458 beds available when temperatures drop to 32 degrees or below. In addition to the city’s own emergency beds, other shelters are included in that total.
Atlanta’s homeless population was 3,076 in January according to the annual “Point in Time Count” of the city’s homeless. The number marked a 14 percent drop from the 2017 count and a 29 percent drop since 2015. This year’s homeless count is scheduled for Jan. 22-27.
Rancifer said there could be many more homeless people that aren’t counted because those completing the count don’t know all of the places to search.
Kathy Storm, who lives in Fayetteville, works for a caterer in Atlanta, and recently she and her daughter-in-law, Lindsay Parker, began taking clothes and toiletries to homeless people Storm passed on her way to and from work. Storm said hearing the stories from those on the street is heartbreaking, especially when temperatures are unbearably cold. The two woman use Facebook to spread the word about the need for donations of blankets, pillows and clothing.
“I promise you, if I had to sleep outside, I would freeze to death,” Storm said.
A spokeswoman for Atlanta Mission said 8,000 people stayed in the shelters the group runs during 2018. Additional cots were recently added to two other shelters, The Shepherd’s Inn and My Sister’s House. But Rachel Reynolds, communication manager, said the shelters sometimes must turn people away.
“Demand is high,” Reynolds said. “We are always, 365 days a year, at 95 to 100 percent capacity, so when the cold weather comes around, we don’t always have the open beds.”
The Salvation Army, located on Luckie Street, has 50 cots available during cold weather months when temperatures are 40 degrees or below, Sgt. Janeane Schmidt said Thursday afternoon. Schmidt said the shelter has been busier since Peachtree-Pine closed. But no one is turned away unless there is another place for them to go.
“You have to think about how people are affected who are out in it,” Schmidt said. “If you’re from this kind of community where 50 degrees is cold to people, then 30 degrees is very cold.”
Easing the plight of the homeless in Atlanta remains a logistical challenge, and opening additional warming centers isn’t the solution, the Atlanta City Council president said.
“We’ve got to find an approach that includes more than just the city,” she said. “It’s got to be more comprehensive than that.”
Near her own neighborhood, Moore said a homeless woman was recently hit by a bus and will lose her leg. The woman is currently in the hospital.
“You get to know these people, Moore said. “You want to take everybody home, but you can’t do that either.”