OPINION: Atlanta’s empty streets put homeless in plain sight

J.R. Simpson is living in a tent under a bridge right off the Downtown Connector. "Everybody here is all right," he said. "They all have to get along." Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill torpy

Credit: Bill torpy

City’s annual census finds more people sleeping outdoors

It’s official. Your eyes aren’t lying: There are more homeless people on the streets of Atlanta.

The city’s annual homeless census counted 3,240 people this year, up nominally from 2019.

But the “Point in Time” count also noted a 31% increase from last year of those sleeping outside. That means the volunteers going out to enumerate society’s bottom rung found 939 people outside on census night. Last year there were 719.

However — and here’s the disheartening thing — the census was conducted on the night of January 27, more than a month before the COVID-19 crisis hit.

For some reason, despite all the earnest efforts and fine intentions of lots of hardworking folks, many more people slept in tents, huddled under bridges or plopped down in some cubbyhole on a cold January night.

And now it might get worse because of the pandemic, although nobody is really sure.

Cathal Doyle certainly believes that. Doyle, a director at the Central Night Shelter, which sits across from the Gold Dome and houses 100-plus men November through March, said he was driving down Peachtree Street on Monday and he’d “never seen so many homeless people on the streets.”

A woman sleeps on the ledge across from Atlanta City Hall. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

That was a route roughly from Emory University Hospital Midtown down to the shelter. His phone tells him the same thing. “I’ve gotten roughly 386 calls from people looking for shelter,” he said, “not just singles but couples and even families since we closed in March.” He gets nowhere near that during a normal off-season.

There are several reasons for more people on the streets, he said, including the large Peachtree-Pine shelter closing in 2017, the coronavirus pandemic, and “mental health issues going through the roof.”

I drove Doyle’s mile-plus route and found the same thing: Men and women dragging belongings. People squatting in doorways or sitting around Woodruff Park, the Five Points MARTA station, or near City Hall. Perhaps there are more out there or maybe it’s an illusion. The office workers, shoppers and convention-goers are largely gone, leaving Atlanta’s underbelly out in plain sight.

Hurt Park is closed for renovation. Centennial Olympic Park is closed because of COVID-19, and the grassy area of Woodruff Park is fenced off. Their closures have shooed the homeless onto the sidewalks.

On a ledge across from City Hall, Richard Hoffman and Jerome Patton whiled away the afternoon. Neither were counted in January’s census. Hoffman was up in Bartow County then, and Patton was in Tennessee. Patton got a temp job last time he came here, but no such gigs are forthcoming now. Neither man stays in a shelter. You don’t need to when the weather is warm. Besides, many homeless people don’t like the concentrated desperation.

As I spoke with Hoffman, a man who sleeps in a tent rode up on a bike and started complaining about the mayor. Hoffman started yelling at him for interrupting our discussion. It got loud, and I worried the dispute might get physical. The tension is raw.

For years, dozens of homeless people slept under the bridge near Grady Memorial Hospital. Authorities stopped that last year with fencing, so the campers trudge around the corner to settle under a bridge on a Downtown Connector off-ramp. When I visited, the encampment had perhaps a dozen tents, bedrolls, couches, chairs, bikes and clothing on hangers dangling from bridge tiles. Maybe 25 people stay there.

A man named Abraham let out a 15-minute stream of consciousness about Social Security, racism, corporate neglect and South Africa.

J.R. Simpson, meanwhile, sat quietly by his tent. He’s been on the streets for three months. He had lived with his mother-in-law but “got tired of her fussing.”

“People have nowhere to go; people lost their jobs,” he said. “People here are all right. They have to get along.”

I called Jack Hardin, chairman of the Gateway Center, which was set up to be the city’s official homeless agency. He has volunteered on homeless issues since the 1980s and has seen a drop in recent years. (A census said there were 5,500 homeless people in Atlanta in 2013, although the number has plateaued.)

But Hardin is worried.

“We’re living in fear of what’s going to happen with evictions,” he said. It’s like a storm gathering in the distance but no one knows how badly it will hit.

Hardin said the shelters tested almost all occupants for COVID-19 in April and May and found a low rate. Several hundred more have been tested since. He said two hotels have been rented to isolate homeless individuals who are COVID positive and reduce the strain of homeless people sleeping on MARTA and at the airport. He said the city, with federal dollars, will try an ambitious plan to house up to 2,000 homeless people.

As to the jump in “unsheltered” people in this year’s census? “I think we were slow to react to the fact that a lot of people don’t want to be in a shelter,” he said.

As evening dawns, homeless men gather to enter the Central Night Shelter run by the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (behind the man) and the neighboring Central Presbyterian Church. The homeless man pictured wouldn’t give his name but eerily resembled the Shrine statue on the right. Photo by Bill Torpy

Cathryn Marchman, executive director of Partners for Home, which heads up Atlanta’s homeless policy, said there were 600 empty beds in Atlanta shelters the night that 939 people were counted sleeping outside. “The perception (among those shivering outdoors) was that shelter was not available,” she said.

Somehow, lost in the buzz with all the crazy things surrounding being homeless, they are somehow not getting the message to come inside when it’s cold.

Some of them won’t abide by shelters’ rules. Some are mentally ill. Others just will not do it.

As I said, those who are fighting homelessness have chipped away at the problem, but there remains a stubborn number of chronically homeless people. Most of them are either mentally ill or abusing drugs or booze, and they are just difficult to reach. There are about 1,000 in each category.

Marchman said the homeless groups are getting ready to use federal stimulus money to get vouchers to rent out up to 800 units to place the most chronic people, and then try to hook up about 1,200 more with housing until they get on their feet.

We’ll see how this works next census time.

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