Atlanta people forced from homeless camps under bridges - GulfToday

Atlanta people forced from homeless camps under bridges

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks during a news conference in Atlanta. File/Associated Press

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks during a news conference in Atlanta. File/Associated Press

Matt Reynolds, Reed Williams, Tribune News Service

Three months after the city of Atlanta began clearing bridge encampments deemed a fire risk, officials say dozens of people are in housing, while others have taken up the city’s offer of around-the-clock shelter as they wait to get into a home. Dozens of others, however, have fallen through the cracks and set up in camps elsewhere. That poses a problem for outreach workers like Tracy Woodard of the homeless advocacy group InTown Cares, who need to find those displaced to bring them medications, help them find housing, or deliver food and other essentials. According to some homeless advocates, it’s one of several negative consequences when cities enforce sweeps, bans and move-along orders. “It makes me crazy because now I can’t find my people,” Woodard said. In February, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens launched a citywide effort to close encampments under bridges. The city says it has “compassionately cleared” at least 15 of those sites by offering housing and other services to those displaced. The mayor’s office has released only vague descriptions of the cleared bridges to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and refused to provide a definitive list of places where work is ongoing.

Although some national homeless advocates argue that forcing people from encampments may do more harm than good, the mayor’s office has underlined public safety concerns and the vast negative economic impact caused by fires that burn out of control and damage bridges, as well as the city’s efforts to get hundreds of people into housing. Cathryn Vassell, CEO of Partners for HOME, the nonprofit agency working with the city on its homelessness strategy, said in an interview that the group counted more than 300 people at bridge encampments before the closures began Feb. 26. Since then, the nonprofit says at least 85 people have found homes and 187 have accepted emergency shelter. Overall, more than 225 people are enrolled in housing navigation work, the organization said. Thirty-three people refused shelter and 13 have left shelters and returned to homelessness, according to Partners for HOME.

Woodard said searching for people who declined services and pinning down a new camp requires legwork — and lots of it. In mid-May, Woodard and Mercy Care street medicine nurse Lauren Hopper were enroute to one such secret encampment, hidden by a canopy of trees off Interstate 85 — not an overhead bridge. After hopping over a barrier on one side of the busy highway, they jumped over another and made a beeline for the camp. As they approached, Woodard made her presence known, calling out over the hum of a nearby generator. A few people emerged from their tents on the slanted verge to greet her. According to Woodard, most of these campers were formerly at an encampment known as The Creek off Buford Highway. The Creek was the city’s first stop and part of the citywide crackdown on more than a dozen locations under bridges or close to overpasses. In an interview with the AJC’s editorial board in February, Dickens said the city would close down some bridge encampments to prevent fire damage when people use them to cook or keep warm. Fires led to the closure of Cheshire Bridge Road in 2021 and again this past December, snarling commuters and nearby businesses.

In the February interview, Dickens emphasized the need to put up heavy-duty fencing and other obstacles after clearing the encampments to dissuade people from returning. Vassell told council members in late May that officials were using a variety of methods, including signage, surveillance and police monitoring, and are sending outreach teams to engage with people who return or are newly homeless. Spokesman Michael Smith did not make the mayor available for an interview to discuss the operation’s progress. But in an email on May 15, Smith said more than a dozen locations “are in the process of being closed and are in different stages of closure.” He did not answer questions about which measures the city had taken to secure the sites. On May 28, Vassell showed council members undated images of cleared locations at Metropolitan Bridge, an underpass at John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, another at Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, and one at Northside Drive. For AJC reporters, finding all the locations on the city’s list involved guesswork because the descriptions were imprecise, and the transient nature of people without homes means they often move between encampments. For instance, the city listed one location simply as “Bell Street.” On a recent morning people could be seen sleeping, or there was evidence that people had been staying, at multiple locations on both Bell Street NE and Bell Street SE.

Some of the bridge areas on the city’s list were empty but it was unclear for how long. People said in interviews they had been forced to move from one bridge only to set up camp at another. The AJC confirmed officials had cleared a camp at a dead end adjacent to state Route 400 and close to the U.S. Post Office on Morosgo Drive. There was a concrete barrier at the dead end. The Creek encampment also had been cleared and large jagged rocks were laid down on a verge that people had formally camped on — presumably to deter people from setting up tents again. The city has allocated $7 million toward the bridge-clearing effort. LaChandra Burks, the city’s interim chief operating officer, told city council members during a budget briefing on May 22 that the project was “going extremely well.” Dickens also spoke during the hearing. “It has never been an easy, linear process to get someone that is having mental challenges off the street and into a home, a job and reunited with their family,” he said.

On May 13, people displaced from The Creek were keeping a low profile at the new, open-air camp off I-85. Some unhoused people are fearful of shelters because of past traumatic experiences or because they want privacy. There also are challenges with trying to get sober while living in close quarters to people with addictions. But at the new camp, resilience and resourcefulness were on display. Yamesha Carr, known as “Diamond,” said she had come from The Creek after the sweep. Speaking in a fenced-off common area with a mini pool table and couch, Carr said the group was planning other additions, including a camp kitchen. “We have more space here. It’s a little bit more secluded,” she said, observing it was easier at the new camp to see who was coming and going. Woodard doesn’t doubt some camps posed a fire risk. But compared to The Creek, the new camp was more dangerous to the individuals because they sometimes cross the busy highway to get in and out.

“There have already been tent fires. Thankfully, I don’t think anybody has been hospitalized yet. But it’s just a much worse situation,” she said.

Others have accepted the city’s offer of shelter, ending up at the Athletic Club of the former Atlanta Medical Center’s campus in the Old Fourth Ward, which the city repurposed in February to give them a place to stay. Tamara Dozier was staying at the center last month. On May 15, the 56-year-old told the AJC she had been homeless since 2009, was in a 12-step program and had not used drugs for more than four months. That came after being treated for frostbite and hypothermia in January. She came to the shelter with half a dozen other people and was still having trouble walking on her left foot.


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