New Atlanta Homeless Union highlights key issues for homeless community

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Anthony “Diesel” Murdoch decided he’d had enough of being homeless one morning when he woke up on the sidewalk to ants biting him.

The native Atlantan has been homeless for three years but reached the tipping point in early July.

So with the help of friends and housed affiliate group Sol Underground, Murdoch helped found what’s now known as the Atlanta Homeless Union (AHU).

“No man, no woman, no child needs to be homeless in the city of Atlanta,” Murdoch said. “We’re people too.”

In the weeks since its creation, AHU has amassed a social media following in the thousands and partnered with dozens of organizations nationwide. Organizers say donations have come in from around the world, and funds collected by Sol Underground have helped sponsor tents, hotel rooms and food for unhoused individuals.

The union’s formation has pointed attention toward the city’s homelessness problem that is only likely to worsen with the end of COVID-19 relief policies and the Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium.

A study in early 2020 found there were about 3,200 homeless individuals in Atlanta living on the street or in shelters, though that number may have fluctuated during the pandemic.

The group has made four key demands of the city: housing, water, healthcare, and a “seat at the table” for Atlanta’s homeless population.

Specific issues raised have included securing permanent shelter for homeless individuals and improving access to mental health care. Atlanta Homeless Union co-founder William Price, who is also homeless, said one of the biggest issues facing the community is limited sanitation access, given that city-operated bathrooms close in the evening.

“Conversations about this are only happening because of the union,” Price said. “If they want to bring revenue to the city, they got to clean the city.”

Ultimately, Price said they want City Council to have a discussion with them about addressing their needs.

Councilmember Antonio Brown said he is in “full support of their work.” Partners for HOMES, Inc., a nonprofit that coordinates the city’s homelessness response, has communicated with the group on behalf of the city, Brown said, but the whole council has yet to meet with the union.

“The unsheltered population has been left behind along with many other populations,” said Brown, who has been homeless himself. “I’m hoping that when we convene again, there’s been substantial progress around ensuring that the Atlanta Homeless Union is part of the conversation with regards to how we address homelessness.”

While Brown said the council has attempted to help Atlanta’s unsheltered community through funding, he believes they have not done enough. He said he especially wants to see more proactive work in stopping generational poverty, which he says will help prevent individuals from being unsheltered.

“We should be a lot further along in solving homelessness in Atlanta than where we are, and this union is a side effect of that,” Brown said.

Atlanta isn’t the first city to see a homeless union, as they’ve sprung up from Sacramento, California to New York City. It’s unclear how many people have joined the Atlanta union.

The union began its efforts on July 5 by setting up tents on City Hall property. That day, six people were arrested and the tents removed from city property.

Tents set up a week later along Martin Luther King Drive downtown were cleared as well, though no arrests were made.

“Erecting tents on city sidewalks is illegal and falls under the city’s Urban Camping ordinance,” a spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Department said. “However, our goal is to alert violators to the issue and attempt to connect them with resources to assist them.”

Murdoch pointed to these incidents as reasons why unhoused individuals in the city need shelter.

“Wherever we go, wherever we live, officers want to arrest us,” said Murdoch, who was arrested on July 5. “Being homeless shouldn’t be a crime.”

As AHU has risen in prominence, groups that provide resources to unhoused individuals want to make sure existing programs aren’t forgotten.

The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District has a social impact team that helps place individuals on the streets in temporary housing and assigns them case managers to help obtain their own homes, Social Impact Director Tammy Hughes said. Hughes said they had helped more than 300 individuals end their homelessness by the end of last year.

Their team was onsite when tents were cleared on July 12 and helped place 12 individuals into shelters. Hughes said the tents prevented a man in a wheelchair from using the sidewalk.

A July 14 AHU press release criticized the improvement district, accusing them of trying to “hide” homeless individuals by placing them in shelters “instead of providing real housing solutions.”

“It doesn’t have to be us against them,” Hughes said. “It can be all of us working to end an issue that we all care passionately about.”

It is difficult to immediately meet all of the union’s demands due to limited resources, Hughes said: “Housing for all doesn’t mean housing at no cost.”

The City Council recently passed a request from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to extend a $4.3 million contract with Partners for HOME to expand public housing. The group has invested millions in permanent housing units that can be subsidized for homeless individuals, and is working on a possible hotel acquisition, Executive Director Cathryn Marchman said.

Emergency Beds Utilization
Update as of July 13, 2021
Partners for HOME

Partners for HOME used CARES Act funding to rent a hotel that housed over 700 individuals from March until May 28. The organization currently has about 125 individuals that have yet to be placed in permanent housing and can’t afford for anyone else to enter the pipeline, Marchman said.

“We’ve exceeded the funds that we have at this point,” Marchman said. “Work is ongoing but the challenge is, it’s all based on attrition and turnover of our current portfolio of housing services and resources, which is just incredibly limited.”

Though Murdoch has worked with Hughes’ team to help interested individuals get into shelters, AHU social media has said that shelters are “dehumanizing and take away our freedom,” citing the limited check-in times and shelter rules.

Marchman said she understood this sentiment, pointing to the many shelter beds that have gone unused. While there were 1997 emergency shelter beds available in 2021, only 1392 were used when the organization conducted a “point in time” count earlier this year.

“We think a better investment of our funds is in permanent housing as opposed to more shelter, given how many beds are underutilized at any given time,” Marchman said.

Rather than just focusing on changes at the city level, Marchman suggested that the union turn to other entities like the county and state that control areas like health care.

Both Hughes and Marchman said they largely support the union’s demands and hope to collaborate with the organization to get more people off the streets.

“We strongly believe ... that the city of Atlanta does need a dedicated revenue stream to continue to fund housing development for homelessness,” Marchman said. “That’s something that we are actively working on and would love to work on with them.”