By Jim Durrett, President of Buckhead Coalition and Executive Director of Buckhead Community Improvement District, and Adam Mathes, President of Prime Power Services

“The Hill”

The calendar invitation read: “Virtual and in Person: Homelessness Encampment Emergency Meeting.” It came from Mayor Andre Dickens and the meeting was for later that afternoon on Thursday, November 10, 2022. The previous day a fire had burned through “The Hill,” the name given to an encampment of homeless individuals on a tree-covered hill in south Buckhead between I-85, Buford Highway and Lenox Road. Included on the invitation list for the emergency meeting were members of the mayor’s senior staff, Cathryn Vassell of Partners for HOME, Georgia Department of Transportation staff members, Deputy Chief Peek of the Atlanta Police Department and representatives of a couple of nonprofits that do homelessness outreach as members of the Continuum of Care.

Georgia DOT staff were included because GDOT owns the land on which the encampment had been established. I was invited to the meeting because the Buckhead Coalition had formed a Homelessness Committee the previous year to help us to understand the issue, how it manifests in Buckhead, what organizations work in that space and what we could and should do about it. 

The Coalition’s Homelessness Committee had spent its time getting to know individuals and organizations addressing homelessness in Atlanta and in Buckhead, visiting a couple of the encampments in south Buckhead, including The Hill. The Homelessness Committee is chaired by Coalition member Adam Mathes, president of Prime Power Services, and I will turn it over to Adam to share a bit about what we have learned and what we are trying to do with what we have learned. Following Adam’s comments, I will get back to that meeting on November 10 of last year and what has happened since.

Thank you for this opportunity, Jim. The story of The Hill’s rise and the city’s efforts to rehouse its residents is a testament to both the challenges and the compassion embedded in Atlanta’s response to homelessness. Our Homelessness Committee has made an effort to share on the Buckhead Coalition website what we have learned about the causes of homelessness and the solutions being pursued in Atlanta.

The Hill’s origin as a homeless encampment as well as the reasons people become homeless are usually rooted in a series of unfortunate events. Individuals found themselves seeking refuge in the makeshift shelters that eventually formed The Hill. No matter how they ended up there, most felt alienated from their families and primary support networks. It became a community born out of necessity, as people came together to provide support and a sense of belonging.

Residents rehoused from encampments

However, Atlanta recognized the need for a more humane and sustainable solution. The city, in partnership with organizations like Partners for HOME, initiated an ambitious plan to rehouse residents of encampments throughout the city. The Hill’s residents were among those prioritized for outreach and rehousing.

We have learned that it can take months of outreach for residents to trust those who visit with offers to help. In the case of The Hill, outreach had begun in earnest in August of 2022 and progress was being made in developing a census of the residents, learning who was living there, and earning trust so that offers of housing and assistance might eventually be accepted. And then, on November 9, fire swept through the encampment. Here I turn it back over to Jim.

Adam Mathes visiting an encampment

Thank you, Adam. What was a deliberate plan of outreach and rehousing became a crisis overnight as Atlanta Fire & Rescue determined that it was extremely unsafe for people to remain on the property. So the emergency meeting was called in order to develop a coordinated plan of what needed to be done and how we would collaborate – state and city government agencies and the private sector – to get the job done.

Partners for HOME and their Continuum of Care partners identified housing to be used and services to be provided and worked to convince residents of The Hill to accept the offer. 

A total of 47 residents were identified during the months leading up to the fire. Thirty-five residents accepted temporary housing in a motel secured by Partners for HOME. Of those, 18 people have been moved into rapid rehousing opportunities. 

Georgia DOT made the decision to clear the land of trees and to landscape the property in a manner that will not encourage another encampment at that location. We intend to follow Livable Buckhead’s suggestion that we work with Georgia DOT to establish a pollinator garden there.

While many embraced the opportunity for stable housing, some residents apparently remained skeptical or wary of accepting services. A portion of the community, for various reasons, decided to relocate their encampment nearby to the banks of Peachtree Creek. It is a reminder of the complexities surrounding homelessness, where individual choices often reflect the difficult circumstances and past experiences of those affected.

Despite these challenges, Atlanta’s Continuum of Care continues to engage in outreach and support efforts for this unhoused community along Peachtree Creek. Outreach teams, social workers and volunteers are dedicated to providing essentials like food, hygiene items, and medical care. The goal is not only to address immediate needs but also to build trust and offer pathways to housing and recovery.

In the ongoing journey to address homelessness in Atlanta, The Hill remains a symbol of both resilience and the persistence of homelessness. It reminds us that while progress has been made, there is still much work to be done. Atlanta’s commitment to finding compassionate and effective solutions for its unhoused residents is a testament to the city’s enduring spirit of community and support.

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  1. I am one of the ones that are still in the encampment and the main one that has been helping to clean up our encampment. What you guys fail to realize is that some of us choose to be out here or just can’t get on our feet the way that society thinks we should. We are asking for help in different ways. I have been out here for 6 years and don’t mind living outside. Just contact me please at thank you I have more to say

  2. The arrogant and ridiculous manner of these “non-profits” trying to “help” people needs to stop. Truck these folks to New York City and let them figure a way out themselves. They’re not welcome to choose ATL as an urban campsite.

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