OPINION: Homeless hotel not a hit with the neighbors. Naturally

Homeless people in Atlanta gather along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and some sleep on the steps of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in January of this year. In 2020, as the pandemic spread, city agencies that fight homelessness rented space in two hotels in an effort to shelter those infected with COVID-19, or deemed susceptible to the disease. Now, those decisions are being questioned by neighbors who say that they were never informed. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Homeless people in Atlanta gather along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and some sleep on the steps of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in January of this year. In 2020, as the pandemic spread, city agencies that fight homelessness rented space in two hotels in an effort to shelter those infected with COVID-19, or deemed susceptible to the disease. Now, those decisions are being questioned by neighbors who say that they were never informed. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

As the enormity of the pandemic sank in last year, the city of Atlanta agencies that fight homelessness had to act fast. The shelters were emptying out for fear of the rapidly spreading new disease, and there was worry that there’d be multitudes of bedraggled and frail people on the street.

Those agencies forged the idea to rent space in a couple of hotels — one for homeless people infected with COVID-19, and another larger facility to take in those who were either sleeping at the airport or were especially susceptible to the disease.

I remember hearing about that plan and even mentioning it in a story last summer. However, I either failed to ask where those hotels were, or maybe I asked and wasn’t told. I don’t recall.

It turns out the hotel that has taken in most of those homeless people over the past 13 months is the massive 16-story former Ramada on Capitol Avenue, a few blocks north of the erstwhile Turner Field. With money from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, about 700 homeless people have been housed there, with most being placed in permanent housing since.

Residents there in the Summerhill neighborhood found out about the operation by happenstance just a few months ago. And they weren’t happy.

So, the city’s homeless services agencies will close up that location at the end of the month and will be looking for new space.

The former Ramada hotel in the Summerhill neighborhood became a place to take homeless people off the street as the pandemic struck. The neighbors did not like that. Photo by Bill Torpy
Caption
The former Ramada hotel in the Summerhill neighborhood became a place to take homeless people off the street as the pandemic struck. The neighbors did not like that. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

In March and April of 2020, the city had to make some tough and quick decisions, and the strategy became one of asking forgiveness rather than permission.

Neighborhoods are never amenable to proposals like halfway houses or homeless shelters, and the city had reason to believe the same resistance would apply here. Again. In January 2019, with the Super Bowl coming to Atlanta, social service advocates proposed using the Fanplex — the ill-conceived arcade and miniature golf complex nearby — as a day center for the homeless. The thought was the center was preferable to tossing homeless folks in jail, another tactic of the past. But the neighborhood was not having it. The Fanplex idea quickly went kaput.

This time, the city quietly rented space in the fading hotel with nearly 400 rooms and proceeded with its stealthy operation. It went fairly smoothly, it seems, because no one living around there knew about it for at least eight months, or at least no one complained about it.

Cheryl Turner, a lawyer who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, said residents noticed some changes earlier this year when the weather improved.

“There were people pushing shopping carts through the neighborhood, people yelling in the streets, and more aggressive panhandling than we have seen,” said Turner, a former president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill.

Part of the issue, she said, was that the program at the hotel was taking in people ousted from encampments. The city closed eight homeless camps, a total of more than 200 people. Only 17 individuals refused to go to the hotel.

“To their credit, prior to them closing the encampments, we didn’t notice,” said Turner. But housing those who’d been sleeping under bridges and in tents, she said, “brought a different population.”

Homeless people congregate along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta and some sleep on the steps of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in this January 2021 file photo. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Homeless people congregate along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta and some sleep on the steps of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in this January 2021 file photo. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Both Turner and Suzanne Guy Mitchell, also a former neighborhood president who has lived there for 20 years, say this is not a case of NIMBY. It’s a problem with how it all went down.

“This has been somewhat historic with the city,” said Mitchell. “Instead of leaning in and helping with a solution, they snuck it in. There was no communication with the neighborhood.

“If they communicated early on, we would have risen to the occasion,” Mitchell said. “But they were caught. It all started out wrong.”

Cathryn Marchman, executive director of Partners for Home, which heads up Atlanta’s homeless policy, said, “We were moving 1 million miles an hour in the largest pandemic in 100 years.”

She said decisions were made to try to protect the homeless from disease, as well as trying to stem the spread.

“We didn’t advertise either location for a number of reasons,” said Marchman. “We didn’t want to get inundated, not with just homeless people but providers dropping them off. It was never an effort to hide this operation. We never did not tell anyone in the neighborhood — no one ever asked.”

The location has been ideal, she said. It’s close to downtown, where there are many social programs and MARTA. “There’s not much reason for someone to go into the (Summerhill) neighborhood,” Marchman said. “They generally turn right out of the building” and head downtown.

Oddly, she said, setting up the homeless program in the hotel “cleaned it up dramatically. There were all sorts of sketchy things going on there before.”

Last fall, the hotel was sold to a developer who has all sorts of grand plans for the building. The area around the old Turner Field has been going through a resurgence in recent years.

Jack Hardin, chairman of the Gateway Center, a nonprofit set up to run a homeless shelter in the old city jail, admitted it’s tough locating an operation that has anything to do with the homeless. “There’s a stigma to facilities like this,” he said. “It’s human nature.”

Hardin said the hotel “has been a critical asset. A lot of people on the street don’t want to go to shelters.”

He said the idea of sleeping in hotel rooms was more appealing than shelters to people out on the streets, and the arrangement allowed social workers to build relationships with them. This made it easier to line them up with services and help place many of them in permanent housing. He added that Atlanta’s homeless had a lower COVID-19 positivity rate than the general population.

Cathryn Marchman, executive director for Partners for Home, which heads up Atlanta’s homeless policy, said: “We were moving 1 million miles an hour in the largest pandemic in 100 years.” (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Marchman)
Caption
Cathryn Marchman, executive director for Partners for Home, which heads up Atlanta’s homeless policy, said: “We were moving 1 million miles an hour in the largest pandemic in 100 years.” (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Marchman)

Credit: Cathryn Marchman

Credit: Cathryn Marchman

Marchman said 554 of the 700-something people who stayed at the hotel were ultimately placed in permanent housing. There are more in the pipeline. That part of the program has been a success. It shows what you can do with $18 million of federal money.

It’s expensive. If 1,000 people are ultimately served, that’ll come to $18,000 a head. That would allow most of them to be housed in “permanent” lodging for a year or two and help some to become productive citizens. However, many who suffer from mental illness issues, or are abusing drugs and alcohol, will likely one day be back in a shelter or under a bridge.

Like Jesus might have said, “The homeless will always be with us.”

Homelessness in Atlanta has been trending downward for years. In 2015, the “Point in Time” count put the homeless population at 4,317. Last year, it was 3,240, although the number of those sleeping outside increased 31% to 939 from the previous year. And the 2020 count was taken in January of last year, before the pandemic hit in the U.S.

“There has been an increase in the unsheltered population; it’s pandemic-related in some way,” said Hardin.

It’s evident when you go downtown, where many a body is slumped in a doorway, or where tents are set up on sidewalks around the corner from the state Capitol.

Marchman said another count will be coming. And she’ll be looking for a new hotel.

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