By George Chidi, contributor
A small army of social workers, cops and public works people descended under the Bell Street bridge near Grady just before dawn, to have one last conversation with people living there. Please come with us. You can’t stay here.
It is the culmination of three months of daily outreach that began with Intown Collaborative Ministries, an Atlanta nonprofit with expertise in street outreach to people with mental illness. “The answer to chronic homelessness is a Housing First approach and Permanent Supportive Housing, where people transitioning off the streets move into an apartment with wrap-around services,” said Brad Schweers, ICM’s executive director. “Right now case managers work hard to engage often-distrustful clients on the streets and navigate them through the process towards housing. But the line is long and the beds are few.”
Atlanta has a $50 million pool set aside to build supportive housing and offer services. It is going to take time to build the units — a few dozen here, a few hundred there — to dent the 3,200 or so count in homelessness here. Atlanta had a slight uptick in homelessness this year, for the first time since the recession, and the visibility of homelessness has been increasing in ways that have neighborhood groups and business leaders howling.
The answers take time and patience, and patience has been wearing thin. This summer, the city started to become more aggressive about managing encampments, even as it prepares to disburse the first of that $50 million for construction.
“We know the answer,” Schweers said. But there’s currently not enough of the answer. The city has been working to address the deficit, but it takes time to build the stock.”
In one case, outreach teams talked with a man who had been homeless for five years. He will be moving into an apartment Thursday. “Meanwhile we’re putting him up at a hotel for two nights, for $200, until he can move in.
It is, perhaps, one of the great ironies of homelessness work that there is no shortage of people visiting the bridge with food and water, but organizations working long term to build relationships can struggle for spot resources in a moment like this.
(To help, contributions can be made at www.intowncm.org/donate).
A month ago, the city’s homelessness organization Partners for Home, began coordinating Intown’s outreach with HOPE Atlanta, Project Community Connections and other social services agencies, as the countdown to a sweep began. Many mornings at 6 a.m., Ashlee Starr from Partners from Home would work with social services agents, going through cases one by one.
Conditions under the bridge had begun to evoke memories of the Peachtree and Pine shelter in midtown, which had deteriorated into cacophony and disease.
When social services providers (including, in full disclosure, myself when I was with Central Atlanta Progress) shut down the shelter, everyone present was offered housing. Most accepted and remain connected to services. Some refused help. At least four of those who had been offered services at Peachtree and Pine were among those being approached by social services workers over the last month, social workers said.
Homelessness is a complicated problem. “Willingness to accept services is the wrong way to look at this,” Schweers said. “That inaccuracy is intuitive to lots of people. It’s based on the old ‘housing readiness’ model, not Housing First.”
About 60 people had been staying under the bridge Tuesday morning. Case workers took on 69 people who had been there over the last month, according to an after-action report Tuesday. As the police and public works crews approached, 15 agreed to go to shelter. Five received permanently supportive housing on the spot, given the severity of their illnesses and needs. Another 20 were assigned permanently supportive housing, and are briefly in transitional shelter.
The number of people going to housing — an apartment or a care facility — will climb over the next 24 hours as case managers work the system.
No one working to alleviate homelessness in the city views a sweep with particular joy, but the conditions under the bridge had begun to deteriorate. “This was a public health problem for the people on the street and also for the community,” said Jimiyu Evans. Co-CEO of Project Community Connections, Inc., an agency serving people experiencing homelessness since 1998 here in Metro, Atlanta. “As providers, we’re trying to coordinate seamless services that haven’t always been easy to deliver.”
Sweeps like this are sensitive, both politically and practically. The public perception of police breaking up an encampment can draw jeers from the public, regardless of how much messaging and outreach precede it. And social workers know that the appearance of working with police can harm hard-won relationships with people living with mental illness, who may begin to view social workers as an arm of the authorities and dig deeper into resistance to help.
“A dozen of our clients were under this bridge,” said Tracy Woodard, another social service outreach worker, with Intown Collaborative Ministries. “If you’re going to do this, this is how it should work.”
Police on the scene said no arrests had been made. A street cleaning crew from the city sprayed the broad, empty sidewalk down with bleach Tuesday morning. Later, they will put up a barricade to prevent pedestrian access — and public sleeping — similar to one recently erected under the bridge at Edgewood Avenue.
And for a few, it wasn’t enough. A handful of people simply moved their belongings one bridge over, to the well-graffitied underpass at Hill Street on the other side of Decatur Street. Homelessness is complicated even under the best circumstances.
Jonathan Wright, 37, has been homeless on again and off again for five years, he said. He uses a wheelchair, and lives with a psychiatric disorder and alcoholism, he said. He is working with Janika Robinson of HOPE Atlanta to find housing, but for the moment the sweep meant a move to a different bridge up the street.
He is on the street with his sister, who has bipolar disorder. And he won’t leave without her. Some people will end up where he is. Others may migrate to Hurt Park near Georgia State, or elsewhere.
“They think everybody who is homeless is on crack,” he said. “I’m sticking with my sister. We don’t separate. It’s us against the world.”
(Photo by Tracy Woodard)