Cover Story: Atlanta makes progress in reducing homelessness, but safety concerns worsen downtownCathryn Marchman, executive director Partners for HOME
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Aug. 9, 2019
Over the past decade, the city of Atlanta’s homeless population has been cut almost in half — one of the sharpest declines in the country.
But a perception exists that there are more people on the streets of downtown.
Actually, both of those statements are true.
Back in 2009, the “point-in-time” census showed Atlanta had 6,131 homeless individuals — of which 1,851 were living on the streets. The 2019 census showed the homeless population had dropped to 3,217 — of which only 719 were living on the streets.
The census, taken in January every year, also counts the homeless who are living in shelters or in transitional housing. The good news is that a much greater percentage of Atlanta’s homeless in 2019 have a roof over their heads compared to 2009.
At the same time, the general managers of three of downtown Atlanta’s major hotels have just written a letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms saying they “have recently seen an alarming increase in complaints from guests due to intimidation, panhandling and unsafe conditions, all related to concentrations of unaddressed homelessness downtown.”
In interviews, a half-dozen leaders working in the homeless arena say the issues are nuanced and complex.“Over the last 10 years, we have essentially moved from a city with a response to homelessness that was sheltering and feeding to a city that is really concentrating on providing housing options with wrap-around services,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown business organization. “That’s working. It is a fragmented service community, but everybody is pulling on the same levers.”
But Robinson said the hoteliers do have a point.
“In the last 30 to 45 days, we have seen an increase in the street population,” Robinson said. “We have had a lot more aggressive solicitation of people. It’s got everybody worked up. This is more of a public safety issue than a homeless issue.”
Peter McMahon, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, said the problem is the city is not enforcing the anti-solicitation laws on the books.
“We all agree the numbers are going down, but the optics tell a different story,” McMahon said. “It’s obvious downtown has seen an increase in the unhoused population. It’s been much more pronounced in the last six months. There is no enforcement. It’s obvious that many suffer from mental illnesses and substance abuse.”
McMahon said the hotel community has partnered with the city on homeless issues. “We are not here to point fingers at anyone,” he said. “We are invested in the community. We are solutions based. We are asking for some help.”
The city of Atlanta is in a fortuitous position thanks to a partnership between Invest Atlanta and the philanthropic sector. Both the city and the private sector each committed $25 million to create the HomeFirst initiative to develop solutions for Atlanta’s homeless population in 2017.
Jack Hardin, co-chairman of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, championed the effort to create the $50 million war chest by raising the private sector funding and getting the city of Atlanta to match it.
“As a community, we would like to create 1,000 units of permanent housing,” Hardin said in an interview. “We have committed about $15 million, and we we will probably spend $25 million to build permanent supportive housing.”
HomeFirst, administered through Partners for HOME, is leveraging its resources to provide housing options and services for Atlanta’s homeless. There also is much greater monitoring and tracking of the homeless population — providing a more sophisticated approach to finding solutions.
Cathryn Marchman, executive director Partners for HOME since 2015, said the investment is part of a strategic shift in how to address the homeless population. Back when she started her work, 75 percent of the funding was going towards emergency or crisis shelters and only 25 percent was being invested to create permanent housing. Now most of the investment is going towards permanent housing rather than shelters.
“We have $25 million set aside to develop a pipeline for permanent supportive housing,” Marchman said. The goal is to create 550 units of permanent supportive housing — which means the residents have access to a host of services that can help them succeed in their new homes — whether it is vocational, medical or therapeutic services.
“We already have 181 units under development,” Marchman said.
The city also has a goal to create 450 new residential units that would be supported with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and Partners for Home said more than 200 of those have been created.
“Our unsheltered number has actually gone down regardless of the perception,” said Marchman, who wanted to dispel several myths about the now closed homeless shelter at Peachtree-Pine.
The “low-barrier” shelter was acquired by CAP in August 2017 and closed in November 2017. At the time, about 250 homeless people were living in Peachtree-Pine.
“We permanently housed 165 of those 250,” Marchman said. “About 100 of them received vouchers; 65 of them were placed into permanent housing; and the other 85 were offered housing and refused.”
Meanwhile Marchman said the community has added 140 beds in low-barrier shelters — including 100 in the Evolution Center managed by the Gateway Center.
Raphael Holloway, CEO of the Gateway Center since 2016, said the center provides triage services for Atlanta’s homeless population — diagnosing their issues and needs. It also has a total of 486 beds for the homeless — including the Evolution Center.
“Atlanta has seen a decrease in homelessness due to a willingness of organizations to partner,” Holloway said. “We have been able to get more people into permanent supportive housing units.”
But Holloway said he does not believe there are enough shelters for women and children. He also would like to see greater affordability, innovative housing units — such as containers or tiny homes — to be part of the longer-term solution.
Although Peachtree-Pine was not a day shelter, homeless people congregated around the facility during the day.“When Peachtree-Pine closed, they had to move to other places,” Holloway said. “You see more encampments in other areas downtown.”
Holloway would love to see Atlanta develop a day shelter, but it’s always hard to find a location that’s willing to accept such a facility.
“As we have worked our numbers down, you are getting to those who are services-resistant,” Holloway said. “The people that we’re seeing have more trauma, substance abuse and behavioral issues.”
And as Atlanta’s housing affordability issue becomes more dire, it will impact the homeless population.“The challenge is housing affordability,” said Marchman, adding that the cities that have had an increase in their homeless population tend to have a lack of affordable housing. “It is an incredibly complex social issue, and it involves the broader issues of poverty.”
With fewer than 3,220 homeless people, Atlanta has been far more successful than some of its peers. Los Angeles’ 2019 point-in-time report showed 58,936 homeless; New York has about 78,000; Seattle — about 12,000; San Francisco — 9,700; and Washington, D.C. — more than 6,000.
“A lot of cities are making progress,” Hardin said. “But I don’t know of any other city that is making the kind of progress that Atlanta is making.”
Back in 2002, then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin founded the Regional Commission on Homelessness — which had a goal of ending chronic homelessness within a decade. At the time, there was more of a regional approach to the issue. And now that has become more fragmented. Atlanta is thought to have the most sophisticated and well-funded response — largely because it has the greatest concentration of homeless people in the metro area.
“We have made a huge dent, but we still have to build appropriate housing units for the homeless population,” Robinson said. “I would say ending chronic homelessness is still a goal, and it’s still achievable. But we have to execute in a coordinated, consistent way and continue to make it a community priority.”