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Atlanta, we have a housing problem. It’s time more of us cared

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By Guest Columnists JEFF SMYTHE and RAPHAEL HOLLOWAY, CEOs, respectively, of HOPE Atlanta and Gateway Center

For too long, we’ve turned a blind eye to Atlanta’s homelessness and housing issues. Could the pandemic and racial justice movement finally be catalysts for real change?

Jeff Smythe

Jeff Smythe

Every so often, there’s an event that rocks us to the core and reminds us of our shared humanity. After Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta threw open its doors to evacuees, providing shelter and aid. 2014’s “Snowmageddon” saw us welcoming stranded travelers into homes and businesses, or passing out water bottles to motorists.

Unfortunately, here’s what usually happens next: As things return to normal, that shared passion dissipates while long-standing issues remain.

Although we work with people experiencing homelessness daily, it’s profoundly disturbing how long homelessness has been accepted as “normal.” HOPE Atlanta’s outreach team encounters unsheltered individuals and families everywhere – under the overpass, at the airport, at traffic stops, on MARTA trains, sleeping in cars. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there are countless more people in extremely unstable housing situations, sheltering in motels or couch surfing across metro Atlanta.

Raphael Holloway

Raphael Holloway

We’ve collectively turned a blind eye to something that should be a huge red flag of an unhealthy and unjust society. We need to end this epidemic of indifference and build a community of “we” instead of “me.”

If there’s a single silver lining to this heartbreaking and challenging year, it’s that we’re seeing signs of that happening.

Just look at the many people and organizations taking a formal stand against racism for the first time. By showing up and speaking out, people of all ethnicities and walks of life are acknowledging that racism and inequality are all of our concern. If we’re going to truly build a more equitable society, housing needs to be a concern we share as well.

The fact is: Atlanta has an affordable housing problem. Rent and housing prices have long outpaced wage growth, forcing residents to spend larger and larger chunks of their income on housing (and forcing many out of the market altogether).

It’s a complex problem. We don’t pin the blame on any one factor or pretend to have all the answers. What we will do is challenge you, dear reader, to care.

If you acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, please also acknowledge the connection between housing and livelihood – where one’s ZIP code plays a larger role in life expectancy than genetics.

The Gateway Center provides 369 beds for men who are enrolled and working to end their homelessness, plus services for men, women and children. Credit: Gateway Center

If you fly the American flag, consider that our veterans are 50% more likely to become homeless than other Americans.

If you praise “essential workers” on social media, remember that among them are the people who bag your groceries, serve your food, and care for your children at daycare. Even with more than one job, many can scarcely afford their rent.

If you’re complacent in your ability to easily pay your mortgage, try to remember a time when you were young and just starting out. The average entry level salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000 in Atlanta, and the average monthly rent around $1,100. Even with a college education and a full-time job, one must spend 30% of monthly income to cover a modest apartment. Once you factor in taxes, student loan debt, utilities, childcare and other expenses, there’s little room for savings or upward mobility.

And if you shrug off homelessness as the result of laziness or personal failings, talk to someone like Rick. Rick had worked in a warehouse for 10 years before a car accident turned his life upside down. Unable to perform physical labor, he resorted to a job in fast food where his hourly wage was cut in half. He lost his home in Fayetteville and, even though he was working hard, he lived at the Gateway Center shelter for eight months because there was no affordable housing available.

Jeff Smyth, HOPE van, client

HOPE Atlanta has four pillars to serve the unsheltered: housing, outreach, prevention, emergency services. Credit: HOPE Atlanta

You would hear many more stories like his if you listen.

Now, we’re at a crossroads with an important choice to make: Return to “business as usual,” even when it’s decidedly unusual for a developed country to deny access to housing to so many of its residents; or, seize on our collective energy and empathy to build a foundation for lasting change.

We challenge you to harness that energy, even while some of our normal activities are on hold. Participate in a virtual event to learn more about the issue. Use your own personal platform to raise awareness. Donate to a local advocacy group or homeless shelter. Vote.

As everyday life returns to its former pace, don’t forget to stop and look around. Remember your marginalized neighbors. Strike up a conversation. Volunteer.

Because in the “city too busy to hate,” we simply can’t be too busy to care.\

Notes to readers:

  • Jeff Smythe is the CEO of HOPE Atlanta (formerly Travelers Aid of Metropolitan Atlanta), a 120-year-old nonprofit organization that provides individualized housing support and advocacy for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
  • Raphael Holloway is the CEO of Gateway Center, an Atlanta nonprofit that serves as a homeless service center providing short-term residential housing and additional supportive services to aid people experiencing homelessness toward self-sufficiency and becoming stably housed.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    William D Prieto October 5, 2020 2:21 am

    There are wealthy Atlanta’s that just won’t donate their time and money to purchase apartment buildings that are abandoned in Fulton county just north of I-20 and about a mile East of downtown Atlanta. There are literally hundreds of rooms and those abandoned apartments that can be renovated and subsidized by the wealthy to housed our homeless population.I do Uber and metropolitan Atlanta area and there are lots of abandoned apartment buildings going unused that could house homeless people.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Crystal October 5, 2020 3:02 am

    Yes and aaaaamen. If you think atlanta is bad, you’d ABSOLUTELY vomit at this homeless crisis in texas! Yuppers everything is bigger there, including the homelessness situation!! I’ve just moved back here from there. I dare you to visit downtown dallas and downtown fort worth!!! It is horrific! This problem is because yup housing is not affordable at at all for some and especially many blacks. There a 2 bed apt is 1700 plus many times!!! I just moved from an apt where 3 senior age white gents (77 ish) actually had just rented a place together because they could not afford his own apt!! They’ve priced its own citizens right out of the market and many times, right onto the concrete streets!!!;What’s it gonna take?! And actually homeless people in texas litter the sidewalks/ neighborhoods/ forest areas etc!!! AMERICA? Please wake up and help!!!Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Sheila Wymer October 5, 2020 3:17 am

    This is going on all over America and with every race!Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Alison Ross October 5, 2020 11:42 am

    The problem is NOT complex – it IS mainly affordable housing driving the crisis and it CAN be fixed. City Council and ATL government (and governments all over) do NOT have to incentivize developers with tax credits, etc. THAT IS WHAT IS DRIVING THIS. It’s called capitalism. Articles like this may have a good intention, but they don’t go far enough. The way the homeless are treated is straight-up NAZISM. Crippled elderly people in the streets begging for money. SHAME On ATL. The people writing this article have a RESPONSIBILITY to take this ALL The way to the ATL courts to stop this madness. HOUSE THE HOMELESS NOW, and prevent further homelessness.Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Seth October 5, 2020 1:42 pm

    I’m confused as to why the CEO of HOPE Atlanta doesn’t know that the vast majority of homeless people are mentally ill AND drug addicted. The average time spent living on the streets for someone without these issues is THREE DAYS.
    Failure to acknowledge this reality is a failure and unwillingness to solve real problems, and those problems have NOTHING to do with affordability of housing.

    Politicians are just starting to face the truth in Los Angeles, where I moved from. Too little too late, as the city is facing a typhus outbreak along with many other disasters as a result of inaction.
    We endured years of misinformation almost identical to this article leading to protests outside of homeless shelters because they “didn’t have enough beds” despite these shelters being mostly empty night-to-night.

    You can “care” until blood runs out of your eyes, but it’s all meaningless if you’re unwilling to address the mental illness epidemic.
    The problem is that politicians and organizations do not dare wade into those waters because it’s very complicated and doesn’t increase their budget.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Monica Garrett October 6, 2020 7:21 am

    Thats great someone has thought about Atlanta’s housing. We need help, there’s alot of slumlords. I pay almost $1000 for a two bedroom one bath and the apartment complex dont fix anything. There’s problems with rats and roaches also cats and fleas. Apartment complex should be first to be helped.Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Stephen Edwards October 7, 2020 5:16 pm

    Yes, the movie industry and hip hop industry have made a lot of people wealthy. They have plenty of dough for some of these renovations which should get tax abatements. Over 50% of Atlanta’s homeless have mental illness issues and some want to be on the street because they have friends and that where they socialize. No easy solutions but if these places were renovated I’m sure there would have to be guidelines that must be adhered to which sometimes if problematic.Report

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Jim Bob October 12, 2020 9:13 pm

    50 years ago the homeless of today would have been institutionalized. Almost all homeless people in Atlanta have serious mental health and or substance abuse problems. The problem is way more complicated than most people realize. Can you imagine the living conditions in an apartment building if you put 100 insane addicts in as residents?Report

    Reply

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