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Fiery bridge collapse spotlights three plagues: Homelessness, drug abuse, immobility

Atlanta’s transit and highway systems converge in this scene from MARTA’s Arts Center Station. Neither fulfill the expectations of the commuters who rely upon them. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By David Pendered

Two plagues of metro Atlanta, homelessness and drug abuse, have forced their way into the spotlight by causing a conflagration on another of the region’s plagues – an overburdened section of highway.

Homeless, despair at Grady

By all appearances, despair has overcome this man as he rests next to a backpack and bottle of beverage. Grady Memorial Hospital, the state’s largest public hospital, stands tall behind a wire fence. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The story is cruising a familiar arc. Authorities say a homeless man with a long record of drug arrests talked with associates about smoking crack cocaine under an elevated section of I-85 near Piedmont Road. A fire ensued, grew, and its intense heat caused a portion of the bridge to collapse.

Were the burnt structure a vacant house, the event may not have made a headline. A highway used by at least 240,000 vehicles a day ensured it did make the news.

Subsequent attention has focused on the impact on commuters and commerce. At some point, the discussion is likely to expand to include the seemingly intractable issues that involve people who have no home gathering together to do things that shouldn’t be done.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed certainly has raised awareness of homelessness. During the mayor’s State of the City address in February, Reed’s prepared remarks reported a 52 percent decrease since 2013 in the number of unsheltered homeless individual counted in the city.

Reed heralded a $50 million program intended to, “make homelessness brief and rare in the city of Atlanta.” The city is to provide $25 million and the United Way of Greater Atlanta is to provide $25 million. Reed’s administration has not put forward a funding mechanism. However, Reed’s deputy chief of staff, Katrina Taylor Parks, told the Finance Committee of the Atlanta City Council on March 1 that the administration views the city’s match as a “priority.”

Reed even cited in his speech a formerly homeless and addicted person who had slept under a bridge:

  • “We’ve seen success stories like Benjamin Graham, who was homeless for five years in the city of Atlanta. Mr. Graham suffered through a series of tough moments in his life. He experienced childhood trauma. He spiraled into addiction. He lost everything. He slept under a bridge not far from here. After receiving assistance from our partners, he got sober and eventually started his own business. He now has a convenience store on Auburn Avenue. He’s a small business owner.”
Atlanta’s transit and highway systems converge in this scene from MARTA’s Arts Center Station. Neither fulfill the expectations of the commuters who rely upon them. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Atlanta’s transit and highway systems converge in this scene from MARTA’s Arts Center Station. Neither fulfill the expectations of the commuters who rely upon them. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The drug situation is a different story. No one seems to be putting a smiley face on progress in this arena.

Consider the arraignment in federal Magistrate Court in May 2016 of a previously convicted drug dealer. Tovias Dunton was arrested in English Avenue, a community in the vortex of the redevelopment spinning off the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Dunton was charged with peddling heroin and using a minor to distribute the drug. Dunton was convicted in 2003 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta for selling drugs and spent time in federal prison, court records show.

English Avenue remains a hotbed for heroin – despite all the high-profile talk about how it and Vine City are being reclaimed from decay and despair. According to the statement issued about Dunton’s arrest by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives:

  • “The defendant was indicted as part of the Drug Market Initiative (DMI), which is an on-going commitment to eradicate the heroin market in the English Avenue neighborhood.”

Real-time numbers on drug usage in metro Atlanta are not readily available. Yet the trend lines that emerge from multiple reports over the last dozen years indicates a rise in the consumption of illegal drugs, or prescribed drugs used by someone other than the patient.

Georgia 400

MARTA and Georgia 400 pass beneath the Atlanta Financial Center. Because of the collapse of a bridge span on nearby I-85, all southbound automobiles must exit the freeway at a point just south of this feat of engineering. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Atlanta is home a federal program that targets drug trafficking. To qualify for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, Atlanta had to meet four criteria including these two:

  • “The area is a significant center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation, or distribution;
  • “Drug-related activities in the area are having a significant harmful impact in the area and in other areas of the country.”

Atlanta receives funding to participate in the program, apparently to the tune of millions of dollars a year. For example, in May 2015 the council voted to accept $4.3 million for the program. The purpose of the federal grant is to, “disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations,” according to the legislation.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse published a report in 2014 that begins with this statement:

  • “The two key findings in the Atlanta area during January through June 2013 were an increase in heroin indicators and an increase in methamphetamine indicators.”

The report went on to catalogue the drug usage uncovered by Georgia State University researchers Brian J. Dew, Ph.D., and Ned Golubovic:

  • “Heroin indicators all showed increases in this reporting period;
    drug bust

    The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested in 2016 members of a drug cartel that worked an area from Atlanta to South Carolina. Authorities seized cash and weapons, and drugs valued at a total of $1.5 million. Credit: GBI

  • “In the first 6 months of 2013, the proportion of individuals seeking public treatment for methamphetamine in Atlanta was at the highest level since 2006. The percentage of injection use among individuals seeking methamphetamine treatment was at a 10-year high;
  • “Available cocaine indicators Atlanta continued to decline … Cocaine constituted the second highest percentage of overall drug reports from analyzed items in this reporting period;
  • “Alcohol (defined as alcohol only and alcohol in combination with other drugs) was the most commonly reported drug used in Atlanta based on available sources;
  • The number of clients seeking public treatment for marijuana as a primary drug of choice slightly decreased;
  • “In the first half of 2013, available drug indicators … suggested that oxycodone was the most reported prescription drug in the Atlanta area.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Chris Carroll April 4, 2017 10:20 am

    Careless handling of flammable materials is the true cause of this destruction. The small fire would have been a 2 line news story without the DOT’s negligence.Report

  2. Heidi Couch April 4, 2017 6:36 pm

    Add another plague, mental illness, to the mix. Mental illness, coupled with homelessness and drug abuse, presents a seemingly impossible challenge to overcome. Proper storage of flammable materials should be a relatively easy fix. The aforementioned often deadly trio – not so much.Report

  3. metitometin April 7, 2017 1:03 pm

    There are hundreds of homeless within 2 blocks of the State Capitol and Atlanta City Hall yet Republicans and Democrats cast a blind eye towards the homeless issue here and both parties could care less. The homeless are criminalized especially by Republicans. Seems like there’s more of an attempt to close down homeless shelters like Peachtree Pine than get these people the help they needReport

    1. Burroughston Broch April 7, 2017 5:15 pm

      metitometin, perhaps we can take some of the money we lavish on illegals and refugees and spend it instead in our own homeless and disturbed.Report

    2. Greg Hodges April 12, 2017 9:32 am

      Especially by Republicans ? Atlanta, like Detroit, Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and other major US cities has been ruled and managed by Democrats for a long time. When was the last Republican Atlanta Mayor? Chief of Police? Dollars to doughnuts, Atlanta’s courtrooms are primarily presided over by Democrat to-the-core judges who pass judgment upon “the homeless” (criminalize them?) and others.Report

  4. Burroughston Broch April 12, 2017 11:19 am

    Greg, everything in this website is slanted toward Democrats. That is Maria’s bias and she ensures all writers share her views. For another current example, look at the post on WIN in which the writer neglects to mention that WIN is focused only on Democrats.Report

    1. Greg Hodges April 12, 2017 1:31 pm

      Those who love to pontificate about “diversity” are rarely able to abide a diversity of opinion, beliefs, and viewpoints. Especially those that differ from their own. This is quite evident today on college campuses, and among the various talking heads that constitute much of what goes for mass media in the USA today.Report


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