Atlanta has an easy way for residents to report concerns. Just dial 311. In the past year, about 2,330 people called that number for an issue related to homelessness.
11Alive Investigates listened to many of those calls, a mix of compassion and frustration.
“This should not go on somewhere where it’s right out in public view. This is in my neighborhood,” said one caller.
“He’s now gone to defecating on the sidewalk,” another reported.
“I will call every day until something is done about it,” vowed a resident, upset that despite an earlier call, nothing had changed to close the encampment near his house.
In June, Mayor Andre Dickens said the number of people homeless in Atlanta had actually dropped 38%. But that’s not the perception, even among the homeless themselves.
“Maybe if you count the ones that have passed away or have left or are in jail,” said Brandon, who asked us not to use his last name. He's spent about six years living in encampments around metro Atlanta.
Investigator Rebecca Lindstrom also spoke with staff at shelters across the metro who said the decrease in people needing housing assistance was short-lived and is now consistently at or above capacity.
11Alive went out into the community and even surveyed those in our newsroom about their thoughts on the causes of homelessness.
Addiction, job loss, lack of support, mental health problems, and personal choice all came up.
“You think that anyone can go to a shelter, why don’t they?” asked one person.
Meanwhile, another added, "every time they clean out an encampment and someone loses their birth certificate, that bars you from so many federal and local resources.”
One man living on the streets, who asked not to be identified said, "It’s like sticky at the bottom and it kind of holds on to you.” He described that stickiness, which for him is anxiety and depression triggered by a car wreck that killed his wife and daughter.
“If you just said, 'I don’t want to do this anymore', what would be your first step?” investigative reporter Kristin Crowley asked him.
“Oh, I say that every morning,” the man quickly responded.
THE HOMELESS YOU SEE:
Atlanta is on a mission to remove encampments. The city pledged more than $26 million for its Lift 2.0 initiative, to house 1,500 people living on the streets by next December.
According to a weekly report by Partners for Home, the non-profit contracted to oversee the project, 13 people have moved into housing as of Oct. 25. Twenty-five people have filed applications and 117 people are currently staying in motel rooms free as part of the effort.
The initiative targets the people we tend to think of when we envision homelessness, those living on the street or under bridges, or hidden in pockets of bushes and trees, creating unconventional and often controversial encampment communities.
“All of this is me. My bedroom, this is where I’ve got the bed, and TV,” said Brandon showing us around his setup at The Hill, the name given to a large encampment near Cheshire Bridge in Atlanta.
“I want to get out, but until I save up enough money, the best thing I can do is get back into the habit of living in an actual house,” he explains as he showed the tent that serves as his kitchen.
Every two years, cities count their homeless population. In Atlanta, of the 2,017 homeless counted in 2022, the majority were adult, Black men. More than a third (37%) reported a serious mental illness. Thirty-two percent reported a substance use disorder and 20% were veterans.
But only a third of those counted were actually living on the streets, an indication the tents we see are a symptom of something else - chronic homelessness.
“I think chronic homelessness is the revolving door of lacking any stability in your life,” explained Ike Reighard, the CEO of MUST Ministries, a shelter in Cobb County that also offers food, clothing, and job placement assistance.
Reighard said that instability makes those living in encampments the most visible and complicated population to reach. They have often created a new sense of community with those living in tents nearby and don't believe stability in another environment is possible.
“Sometimes social awkwardness, sometimes its PTSD that keeps a person living in an encampment,” he explained.
The reasons for remaining on the streets may also include chronic health problems, job loss, encampment cleanups, and lack of family support, especially among the LGBTQ community. Theft is also a problem because it often robs people of the documents they need in order to get a job and work.
Brandon breaks down the street population this way, “The hobo is just standard 'sleep on the park bench so everybody can see you and dig out of the trash.' Somebody who has given up. But then you have homeless people. They’re there not by choice, but by circumstance. And then you have people like me who are out here by choice.”
Over the past six years, Brandon has worked his way through all three phases. He said it was a process to restore his hope and routine to embrace a more traditional way of life. He credits Tracey Thompson for it all.
Thompson, visits the Hill and other encampments several times a week creating the kind of trust needed to begin working through the barriers.
“My goal is to help people get housed, ultimately who want to be housed. And if not, what’s going on here and how can I help? You need rakes, ok. You need garbage bags? Ok,” she explained.
Thompson has been able to help Brandon work through various barriers in the way of finding housing. Among the most critical was medication for his mental health needs.
“The meds happened first. And in the process of the meds, the ID came through. Then once that all happened, the job came,” remembers Brandon.
That’s when he also realized he no longer wanted to tolerate the rats, trash, and a lack of running water, adding "there’s nothing like a toilet that flushes. Trust me!”
Now the challenge is finding an apartment or house to rent that he can afford. But, as Thompson helps him with his hunt, she knows the idea of zero encampments is unrealistic.
“There’s always going to be a part of our population that doesn’t do well being closed in. The rules and regulations that come with housing,” she explained.
THE HOMELESS YOU DON'T SEE:
Even if Atlanta manages to find housing for those living in encampments, the data suggests there’s a far greater number of people out of sight, equally in need of help to find their way home.
“It’s the mom, her parents, and the children," Reighard explained.
When MUST Ministries opened its new shelter, it created ten rooms to directly assist families. But it’s not enough.
In August 2020, MUST said it spent $12,000 to rent motel rooms to help seven additional families. This year, it spent $52,000 to rent rooms for 37 families.
“About 80% of those we serve are women and children. And I don’t think that’s what usually comes to a person’s mind when they think of homelessness,” Reighard added.
Many people sleep in cars, bounce between their family and friends' houses sleeping on couches, or rent rooms at extended-stay hotels to buy time in their search for stable housing.
Matthew Jones, the founder of The Grocery Spot, said he sees the struggle every day in the eyes of those who come for help. He created the non-profit in Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood where the median income is just over $23,000.
“You got to be pretty vulnerable I feel like to even stand out in the heat and wait, sometimes, you know, for an hour and a half just to get some free food. But it’s a lifeline,” he explained.
The Grocery Spot's manager, Porsha Braxton, used to be homeless for about a year herself, living in hotels while going through a bitter divorce.
“I understand these people when they come up here,” she explained. “It can happen to anybody. It can. There are people with businesses that are homeless now because of COVID.”
Jose Garcia is among those who've turned to The Grocery Spot for help. When the grandmother he lived with died, her house was sold and he couldn’t afford a place of his own. He described the non-profit to 11Alive as "a blessing," adding "you can actually have food instead of having to go and ask somebody for something to eat."
Christy Betz, who partners with The Grocery Spot and runs a Facebook group called Giving Grace explained "the biggest need now is people holding on by a thread. People who are $200 away from losing their apartment.”
Her group started 10 years ago to provide things like food and clothing. Now, the page is filled with people about to become homeless or those who already are.
“We have a lot of folks in hotels right now and they are having trouble getting approved for apartments because the rent in Atlanta has gotten so out of control,” she added.
WHAT IS AFFORDABLE?:
Gloria Daniel will tell you if you have a place to live that’s affordable, consider yourself lucky.
Daniel has struggled for more than a year to find an apartment that fits her budget, about $900 a month. That is well below the average rent for a one-bedroom in metro Atlanta, $1,400.
There are complexes around the metro that receive tax breaks in exchange for providing apartments at lower rent rates. For example, tenants at Stride where Daniel is on the waiting list, pay between $750-$1,500. It’s the same apartment, just a different price based on income.
But those price-reduced apartments are hard to come by and Daniel said depending on location, the wait list varies from one to five years.
She is not sleeping on the streets but is homeless. 11Alive met up with her at the storage unit where she’s forced to keep her stuff while sleeping at a friend’s house.
“I’m paying almost $400. Like $399. These two are both my storage,” Daniel said, pulling up the door to one that holds clothes and other daily items she needs to access. While she does pay rent to her friend as well, there is limited space to bring more than a day or two of food and clothes.
The government defines affordable housing as rent or mortgage that costs less than 30% of a person's income. That means to rent that average one-bedroom in metro Atlanta, you have to make $46,000 a year. At minimum wage, you’d have to work 124 hours a week to afford it.
“We may have Fortune 500 relocations coming here, it does us no good if people who lived here a long time still find themselves living on the streets of Atlanta or in the woods or unhoused,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said.
Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made similar statements during her term, pledging to create or preserve 20,000 units of affordable housing. The city even created a dashboard so the public could track efforts.
At the time, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta warned the metro area needed 416,000 more places for people with lower incomes to live. To date, the city of Atlanta has spent or committed more than $900 million and created 7,309 units. It’s hardly enough for struggling families to notice.
The number doesn't seem large when you consider all of the ribbon cuttings and press releases in the news.
Dr. Eloisa Klementich, the CEO of Invest Atlanta, took 11Alive's Rebecca Lindstrom around one of the affordable housing projects protected by the city of Atlanta, adding it has "about 120 affordable units."
She added, "no one is going to earn more than $40,000 who live in these units."
However, the tax breaks and low-interest loans that make these deals possible are temporary, generally a set period of time. For Capitol View, that’s about 15 years. After that, the owner can charge anything it wants, which means the work to find new affordable units never ends.
“At the end of the day we’re, we live in the United States. It’s a capitalist society,” Klementich added.
Even at the reduced rates, it’s still too much for someone coming out of an encampment or homeless shelter to afford. Background checks, rental history, and credit scores are other barriers. Capitol View will take tenants on housing assistance programs like section eight, if there’s space.
Capitol View also said it’s only had five units available for new tenants this year.
“The best way to find out about these units, call the individual property owners and find out if they have any availability and if they don’t, get on the waiting list,” Klementich explained.
But if that’s the best way, Daniel says we need to do better. She began to cry, recounting all of the emails, phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits she has made to find a place to live.
“It’s been really hard. It’s taken a toll emotionally, mentally,” she said adding, she’s not looking for free, just affordable.
11Alive Investigators are examining why tents line Atlanta's freeways and why families struggle to find stable housing in their three-part series The Way Home. Read Part 2: The Cause and Part 3: Solutions.