City approves funding to ramp up housing, shelter space for city’s homeless

The scrutiny on homelessness in Atlanta, and the city’s collective government, private entity and nonprofit maneuvers around it have always seemed to cluster around events like the 1994 Super Bowl, the 1995 World Series, and the 1996 Olympics. Though then mayor Bill Campbell insisted that the city of Atlanta didn’t have a policy of removing homelessness from the streets, passages and more rigid enforcement of city ordinances addressing loitering and panhandling coupled with an uptick in police sweeps and arrests told another narrative. In fact, Anita Beaty, then co-director of the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless documented more than 9,000 arrests of homeless people from May 1995 to May 1996, four times greater than what the task force had recorded in previous years.

With the Super Bowl and a possible bid for the World Cup on the city’s calendar – the expectation for how the city planned to “clean up” in preparation was more of the same: Displacement of the city’s vulnerable populations.

But along came Basil Eleby – the homeless man who has been formally charged with felony arson and criminal damage to property for allegedly starting the fire under the I-85 bridge which eventually spread to flammable plastic conduits the Georgia Department of Transportation had been storing there for years.

Mawuli Davis, Eleby’s attorney of record, said the bridge’s fall and Eleby’s subsequent arrest opened up larger conversations about homelessness in the city and its intersections with substance abuse, mental health and the hyper-criminalization of those at the margins of society. An early flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – where homeless have been gathering –  will help underscore the paradox of a city surging ahead with economic development while people literally sleep, without stable housing, at its gateway.

“There are thousands of homeless individuals all sleeping under bridges and in otherwise difficult circumstances [in the Atlanta metro region] and that is a reality that many people are living with. We also know that there are issues around substance abuse which public health concern and should be treated as such. Substance abusers are sick and should be helped and looked upon more compassionately; not criminalized for having a substance abuse problem.”

The antidote: compassion, perhaps. Coordinated efforts, for sure.

Atlanta’s City Council recently approved funding for an ambitious plan to curb homelessness, announcing a $26 million bond commitment that will be added to $25 million already promised by the United Way of Greater Atlanta which made homelessness their marquee cause.

The funding, a priority for the city in Mayor Kasim Reed’s last year in office, has been in the works for months — even before a recent announcement that the city planned to close the controversial Peachtree Pine homeless shelter downtown.

Central Atlanta Progress is taking over the Peachtree Pines homeless shelter, which is slated to close this August.

During his “state of the city” address in January, Reed disclosed that the United Way of Greater Atlanta had pledged to match city funding that will be used to renovate housing for the homeless and add more shelter space. City officials did not say where those would be located.

“I am proud to announce that with the unanimous approval of the Atlanta City Council, we will move forward with our $50 million commitment to make homelessness rare and brief in the City of Atlanta,” Reed said in a written statement.

“We now have the opportunity to end chronic homelessness in our city, and ensure that all women, men and children – regardless of circumstance – have the chance to live stable, meaningful lives and participate fully in their communities,” he continued.

Around $7.6 million of the money from the Homeless Opportunity Bond will be used for the acquisition and renovation of shelters over the next three years, according to the City. The specific facilities have yet to be determined, but could include Jefferson Place, a closed shelter owned by Fulton County in downtown Atlanta that could be turned over to the city.

However, the biggest portion of the money — more than $16 million — will go to buying or renovating 500 units for housing throughout the city that can be used to offer permanent homes for the homeless, the primary goal of the city’s homeless initiative.

“It reintegrates these people back into the fabric of our society,” said Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who sponsored the measure. “I think warehousing is an outdated concept. Sometimes that works if we are looking for a central place to provide services, but we want people to come back into the fold of the whole society.”

More than 3,500 men, women and children in Atlanta are in need of some kind of shelter, according to an analysis conducted by the non-profit Partners for Home. About 1,500 of those people are in emergency shelters, while 1,300 are in transitional housing, before moving independently into a house or apartment. More than 680 are still on the streets.

“It reaffirms solidly the city’s commitment to dealing with the issues of the homeless,” said Bond. “This signals to them that they are not forgotten and that they are priority of this government.”

Peachtree Pine, the city’s biggest shelter, will begin moving users out of the shelter in late August and close when all have found a place to stay.

Alongside the infusion in funding to address homelessness, Fulton County commissioners, who decided to outsource mental health services they provided to increase efficiency of care, are looking to increase the number of people served by mental health services in the county – from 1,500 to 4,000.

The county estimated it had about 34,000 uninsured residents who could use mental health care, including help with addictions, therapy or diagnosis. The providers will focus on at-risk groups, like the homeless population, and provide both group and individual therapy.

River Edge Behavioral Health, which will provide the services to adults, will partner with local hospitals and other organizations. It is expected to serve 3,000 people on a $4 million contract. Another, Chris 180, will serve 1,000 children and young adults for $2 million. The services will include school-based therapy services and an adolescent substance abuse program. The county is aligning itself with the state system, which it will use to track patients and their outcomes across a range of providers. If commissioners approve the programs, some will begin Oct. 1 while others will go into effect Jan. 1.

Davis sees the coordinated efforts and the focus on mental health and substance abuse as co-sign to his team’s strategy to speak up for the voiceless and work with community activists for the rights of the disenfranchised as the fight to curb homelessness continues. “One of the things that I’m hoping people get from this is that there are people who are still committed to working in the interest of our community and not just allowing people who lie on the margins to live without support from others to face the complexity of issues we face as a city, state. And there’s a lot of positive that could come out of this. What was destroyed was a bridge but it is possible to build new bridges of humanity through this process … and that’s far more important than concrete structures.”

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