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Sean Keenan

Amid pandemic, city plan directs homeless sleeping at airport to supportive services

Sean Keenan
Hartsfield-Jackson atrium

By Sean Keenan

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved legislation that kickstarts a 60-day plan to curb the number of homeless people sleeping at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and help them navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

For years, some of Atlanta’s unsheltered population have found shelter at the airport, which they tend to reach via MARTA trains. But since the novel coronavirus seized the country some weeks ago, many have been forced to re-evaluate their living situations. Since then, the number of indigent people bedding down at the airport has spiked, according to the council resolution.

Sleeping at the airport, though, is a violation of Federal Aviation Administration code and a potential health hazard during the COVID-19 crisis, according to District 3 City Councilman Antonio Brown, who proposed the legislation.

The measure “would change the prohibited hours of operation at the airport for the purposes of allowing public safety personnel to more effectively and flexibly engage with the unsheltered population who congregate at the airport, and to provide them with access to protective masks and gloves, counseling services, COVID-19 testing, appropriate accommodation at designated hotels and wrap-around support and services,” the legislation says.

The resolution dictates that, after 6 p.m. each day, no one will be allowed to enter the airport unless they’re traveling or working there. Unauthorized people who arrive thereafter will be turned away and pointed toward shelter and other help.

The move, Brown told SaportaReport in a recent interview, will provide a window for officials from the city, airport and homeless advocacy group HOPE Atlanta to direct homeless persons toward COVID-19 testing and other supportive services. The idea is to give homeless people looking for shelter opportunities to find other options.

Brown also said he recently donated 400 protective masks and 400 pairs of gloves to HOPE Atlanta. Some of those will be used to outfit the people accessing services from the airport.

Through a partnership with healthcare-focused nonprofit Mercy Care and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city has now tested most of its homeless population for COVID-19. As of last week, more than 2,400 of the city’s estimated 3,200 homeless people had been tested.

Most of the few dozen who have tested positive for the virus have been transported to what officials are calling the “isolation hotel,” a repurposed downtown hotel where patients are monitored and treated. Those found not to be carrying the virus are sent to another intown hotel where they have access to healthy food and housing placement assistance, officials have told SaportaReport.

In addition to Brown’s efforts to keep the homeless from congregating at the airport, MARTA has been intercepting people heading to the airport seeking shelter. The transit agency’s police officers have been rerouting people who are sleeping or don’t have Breeze cards toward help from HOPE Atlanta and Partners for Home, the city’s homeless outreach manager.

(Header image, via Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: The atrium in the main terminal)

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