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No Place to Call Home

 

Residents in Bankhead and Grove Park want the City to come up with better solutions for supporting the area’s unhoused population

Story by Nile Kendall and Genia Billingsley

Photos by Dustin Chambers

 

 

July 6, 2022

  The Bankhead Issue

How we reported this story:  Canopy Atlanta asked Bankhead and Grove Park community members about the journalism they needed and this story emerged from that feedback. Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Nile Kendall and Genia Billingsley, Canopy Atlanta Fellows, are the authors behind this storySupport our community-powered work today.

“We are not lazy, we are exhausted from trying to survive.”
— 
Community Resident Jeremy Robinson

AT THE SAFEHOUSE SHELTER in downtown, Jeremy Robinson, a clean cut, physically fit, middle-aged Black man dressed in loose fitting basketball shorts and a Nike T-shirt, says he comes by for meal services whenever he hits a “rough patch.”

 

For him and the others who are gathered on Ellis Street on a warm Friday evening in May, those rough patches include the pitfalls and challenges of attempting to maintain a job and transition into stable housing while navigating the various agencies that purport to address housing insecurity in the Atlanta area. 

 

“We are not lazy,” Robinson says. “We are exhausted from trying to survive.” 

 

Robinson says there is work for people experiencing homelessness, but it is backbreaking labor like roofing and construction for low wages. “I felt like they’d take advantage of me because I was young and strong, and I could work for eight to 10 hours straight—but my body was breaking down.”

 

There are other issues as well: Basic things like the need to change clothes, bathe daily, and store extra items needed for employment can be challenging. Robinson solves some of these problems by using the library’s computers to create a different email address to obtain day passes to local gyms. When it works out, this occasionally allows him to workout, which, he says, helps him physically and mentally. The showers provide a clean place stocked with soap and towels to bathe and get ready for the next day. However, maintaining a haircut has become difficult because of inflation. “Most haircuts cost $40. That’s a lot for people like me,” he says.

 

And appearances are more than skin-deep to Robinson: He always wanted to feel good about himself. He wanted to be seen, felt, loved. 

 

Robinson was born on North Evelyn Street in Grove Park, just off what was known then as Bankhead Highway. His family tells him that his mom had a drug problem and the state intervened when she left him and his siblings alone in the house. Robinson was placed in foster care and was eventually adopted by his cousin and moved to College Park.

 

He thought of his parents everyday when things weren’t as he thought they should be. There was a time where he could only get a haircut once every two months because that’s all his caregivers could afford. “I can remember only one time where [my caregiver] told me I was handsome, she kind of praised me a little bit. I remember it happening only one or two times, because it meant that much to me. I didn’t get the full nurturing that I needed. There’s a lot that we were missing and you wouldn’t even know it.”  

 

Robinson used to have a lot of energy that he couldn’t contain–which meant he got in trouble a lot. So, when he turned 19, and was able to get out of there, he left, eschewing thoughts of college or a trade for simply surviving.

 

“I know I’m on these streets,” he remembers thinking, “but I’m happy and free.”

 

What freedom means for Robinson and others experiencing homelessness is a topic of discussion that stirs passion among residents in Grove Park and Bankhead. Whereas some may see a nuisance, others remember the neighbors—friends and family—who simply lost their way.

 

Members of the community told us stories about the young kid who went off to war, came back home and recently passed from cancer while living off the grid. They recall the college grad who fell on hard times and ultimately decided to lead a life on their own terms. There were the families who fell on hard financial times during the pandemic, got evicted, and were forced to fend for themselves on the streets.  

 

Residents say they want to see folks like Robinson get the resources they need. They want to see solutions without the strong arm of law enforcement reacting to complaints about their neighbors who have nowhere to call home.

Signs placed throughout Bankhead and Grove Park that warn residents of trespassing.

IT WAS A BOISTEROUS SCENE at the February meeting for Neighborhood Planning Unit G.

 

After the new Zone 1 commander, Major Reginald Moorman, went through his requisite connection-points—he graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and is from the surrounding Bankhead and Grove Park community—several residents in attendance expressed concerns about a tent city and trash accumulation from the unhoused population near the intersection of Bolton Road and Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Moorman responded by reminding them: Homelessness is not a crime.

 

“What we’re going to do first is go out there and ask the property owner to secure the property to avoid further access,” he continued. “The existing people experiencing homelessness would be offered social services by the HOPE team and asked to voluntarily leave the property.”

 

“Our final resort,” said Moorman, “is arrest.”

 

Throughout Atlanta, there have long been echoes of resident restlessness when it comes to the city’s unhoused population.

 

Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell initially wanted to make MARTA, the city’s transit system, a free service, but received pushback from detractors who worried the unhoused population would become a nuisance.

 

Later, in preparation for the 1996 Olympics, the City of Atlanta sought to portray the town as a place without poor people—-especially homeless poor people—-according to Anita Beaty, former executive director of the nonprofit Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. In the lead-up to the Games, Beaty says, city leaders passed legislation making it a crime to remove items from public garbage cans. Many of the residents who were housing-insecure were given one-way tickets to leave town, and expected to sign an agreement that said they would not return. Roughly 9,000 impoverished citizens were arrested by local authorities less than two years before the opening ceremony. Beaty told WBUR she has receipts in the form of countless citations the APD doled out to the city’s unhoused population in the lead-up to the games.

 

Nearly two decades later, in 2015, Atlanta Streetcar operators and passengers complained to City leaders that a large number of unhoused people were taking advantage of the system’s free fare and riding the cars for hours, causing safety concerns. The following year, the City of Atlanta introduced a $1 fare to ride the $100 million transportation system.

 

Today, Bankhead and Grove Park residents’ collective sentiments can be summed up as equal parts compassion and concern.  

 

Major Anthony Singh says he understands where the community is coming from on the issue. Singh, a 29-year APD veteran who leads the department’s Homeless Outreach Prevention and Engagement (HOPE) team, agrees that being homeless in itself isn’t a crime and law enforcement should address the matter with that sentiment in mind.

“Sometimes folks say, ‘All I want is a hot meal…or my clothes are soiled and I’d like some clean clothes,’ and that’s what we’ll give them.”
— PAD Community Engagement Manager Clara Totenberg Green

“The diversion program is our primary focus. We’re not criminalizing homelessness, unless there are excruciating circumstances,” Singh says. “We preach de-escalation. We take a different approach to deal with an individual who maybe four or six years ago we would have arrested for obstruction.”

 

That diversion program, known as the Atlanta Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD), started in 2017. The premise is that if the police detain a person for committing a victimless crime, instead of arresting them, they can divert them to PAD. A PAD officer then comes to the scene, tries to connect the person with useful services, and no arrests are made.

 

According to Singh, when the HOPE team becomes aware of an encampment, officers travel to the site and warn its inhabitants that they have a week or two to clear out. Sometimes they bring a PAD officer along with them. If not, HOPE officers pass out flyers to inform residents where they can find help.

 

“Sometimes folks say, ‘All I want is a hot meal…or my clothes are soiled and I’d like some clean clothes,’ and that’s what we’ll give them,” says PAD Community Engagement Manager Clara Totenberg Green. “If they do want housing, we can take them to a shelter.”

 

Despite these efforts, there still seems to be a lack of trust between police and folks living on the streets. Last year, the HOPE team engaged over 1,600 unsheltered individuals, and only about 600 of them accepted the help, according to Singh.

 

V, an organizer with Sol Underground (who spoke with CA on the condition that we only use their first initial), a Black-led mutual aid effort once headquartered in Grove Park, says that on the ground, people mostly associate the HOPE team with eviction.

 

“People do not like the HOPE team,” they say. “They know that when the HOPE team comes, it’s time for them to move, or else they’ll get arrested, which they’ve done pretty frequently.”

 

According to V, at the end of October 2021, the HOPE team evicted 40 people from an encampment on Martin Luther King Drive and Central Avenue, put up cement barricades, and arrested eight of its residents.

 

In response, around the same time last year and right before the city elections, Partners for HOME—a nonprofit approved by the city council in 2013, during the administration of Mayor Kasim Reed and designed to coordinate and strategize Atlantans out of homelessness—released an Encampment Closure Plan that recommends a 90-day process for compassionately closing homeless encampments.

Interview with Atlanta Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD)

Interview with Sol Underground

Interview with Homeless Outreach Prevention and Engagement (HOPE)

Grove Park and Bankhead are home to many, including those experiencing homelessness.

 Whose trash is it anyway?

Residents in Grove Park and Bankhead say they have a litter problem and want solutions, but local organizers say the issue is systemic.

EACH YEAR IN JANUARY, Partners for HOME conducts Atlanta’s Point in Time (PIT) count. For one night, volunteers from the City’s homeless services organization go out in the streets and take a census of people experiencing homelessness.

 

Before this year, the last PIT count was taken in January of 2020, with a tally of over 3,200 people. Last year’s data collection was canceled due to Covid-19. This year’s canvas was conducted on January 24 and found the PIT count was at 2,107, a 37 percent drop from 2020. Due to the effects of the pandemic, however, Partners for HOME CEO Cathryn Vassell says she believes the unsheltered are just more visible now.

 

“Because our shelters have reduced capacity [due to Covid-19], there are less shelter beds, and so more people are camping outside in a more visible way,” she says.

 

Despite the reduced capacity, Vassell says that there are still empty shelter beds throughout the city almost every night. The problem is a lot of people living in encampments aren’t interested in traditional shelters.

 

“They’re too restrictive. There are too many rules. There are too many barriers to just getting in the front door,” Vassell says.

 

Most shelters have curfews, which means you aren’t able to work past a certain time. Many only accept women and children. People with untreated mental health conditions are often turned away. A lot of people have also experienced certain traumas living in shelters. In Robinson’s experience, the rules are plenty and the attention is often centered around people with drug problems. 

 

Additionally, he feels the inability to lay roots thwarts his aspirations and forces him to make unfortunate trade-offs. “You have to walk everywhere and so you’re exhausted, and even when you do have a little job, when you get off, you want to go home and go straight to your bed or shower and you can’t do that,” he says. 

 

“Females are not going to treat you with respect, because you don’t have a place to stay. Even your own family doesn’t treat you with respect, because you don’t have any money,” he continues. 

 

“So, you just give up. I mean, I want to be a doctor, but why would I go to class to come home and be on the street? I might as well just be here on the street and get a couple of dollars so I can just feed myself.” 

 

Vassell says that in an ideal world, shelters would be easier to enter, and would pour every dollar they have into long-term housing. However, at this time, she still recognizes the need for emergency shelter.

 

One form of emergency shelter that has worked are hotels.

 

With money received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020, Partners For HOME rented hundreds of rooms in the Ramada Hotel on Capitol Avenue, just a few blocks north of Center Parc Credit Union Stadium, owned by Georgia State University. They were able to place around 250 people in this hotel directly from encampments across the city.

 

Vassell says very few people living in encampments turn down a hotel, as it provides them with their own room, private bathroom, and a more complete sense of dignity. However, the Ramada project hit a snag when Summerhill residents started to notice more unsheltered people in their neighborhood, putting pressure on Partners For HOME to shut the operation down.

 

In any case, Vassell says they are now looking at new hotels and are currently evaluating the best path forward.

“Most haircuts cost $40. That’s a lot for people like me.”
— Community Resident Jeremy Robinson

IN THE BANKHEAD AND GROVE PARK AREAthe community is eager to partner with the City to come up with solutions. Homelessness is an ongoing issue, and approaches used thus far have seen marginal success. For example, the homeless encampment at Bolton Road and Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway discussed in February’s NPU-G meeting was addressed as promised. APD reached out to the owner, and the area is now secured by a fence. A couple of weeks following the fence’s construction, however, tents began popping up in the adjacent space.

 

Downtown resident Peggy Dobbins, a retired sociologist and frequent passerby, has concerns about the encampment.

 

“Traffic is usually backed up, waiting at the lights on either corner of the park,” she says. “I spend five, usually not more than 10 minutes, looking at the park, imagining it differently.”

 

The park doesn’t actually run all the way along Donald Lee Hollowell. One corner does. It’s filled with a nice big sign: “English Park, City of Atlanta.” Next to that is an old cemetery and a vacant lot.

 

“When I first started looking, there was a homeless encampment on the vacant lot,” she says. “It occurs to me now that the men camped there might object to my calling them homeless. There were tents. Their belongings were lined up outside, not haphazardly, as if, I wondered, purposely, to assert to all who passed them by, ‘Yes, this is where I have to live. I live here. Right out here. In the traffic. You see me. It’s a place. I have this place. It’s where I live.’”

Erica “Umi” Clahar started Umi Feeds in 2015, as a way to keep leftover food from going to waste.

Interview with Erica “Umi” Clahar of Umi Feeds

DOBBINS OFTEN ASKS what became of the men she’d see at the encampment. She advocates for the homeless when she has the opportunity. When she talks to officials, advocates, and residents, the major questions are the same: What city is handling the homeless with respect and dignity? Who can we model?

 

The questions led her to discover Memphis, Tennessee’s Hospitality Hub, a nonprofit founded in 2007 that has partnered with the Memphis city government to become a single point of entry for a continuum of care for the homeless. The Hub has several programs that make it unique, including plans for a barrier-free women’s shelter. The Hub operates on the premise that homelessness is not an individual choice and shouldn’t be attributed to personal disposition. Rather, it recognizes homelessness as the result of a mix of economic, structural, and societal factors that affect a community’s most vulnerable populations. The planned campus will include a quiet room, a family room, a salon, a large outdoor space, and several places to be alone that promote safety and healing. The shelter will be considered barrier-free because it will only require that guests identify as female and have children. The organization will also operate a hub hotel, which provides transitional housing, and hub studios that provide an option to those who do not fit into traditional shelter settings.

 

Resources like these, brought to Atlanta, would allow local organizations like Umi Feeds a chance to serve those experiencing homelesness on a more consistent basis.

 

Erica “Umi” Clahar started Umi Feeds in October of 2015, when she volunteered at an event and didn’t want to see the leftover food go to waste. Clahar approached event coordinators to see if she could bring the extra pinwheel platters to the homeless in Woodruff Park. This would be the beginning of a food recovery business and a calling to feed healthy and nutritious food to the homeless and those experiencing food insecurity and persistent hunger through partnerships with local restaurants and agencies.

 

Clahar wants to educate the public about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996, which excludes food donors from liability except in cases of extreme negligence or misconduct. She feels that, if restaurants and other agencies understood this legislation, they would be more willing to allow her to rescue more food and increase the number of meals she is able to serve.

 

Robinson says he appreciates the services Umi provides but wishes there were more opportunities for transitional housing in Atlanta. A room of his own with a door that locks would be a great start, he muses. But that sort of housing is hard to come by in Atlanta. The waiting lists are long, and the disabled get priority. He wishes there were more available, but hasn’t given up hope that one day he will be able to improve his circumstances.

 

He has no immediate plans to return to Grove Park, which, like many other parts of the city, lacks adequate transitional housing and resources for those experiencing housing insecurity, according to Robinson. “We might not be ready for a full apartment that you need to make three times the rent and have a security deposit,” he says, “but we deserve a chance.”

“We might not be ready for a full apartment that you need to make three times the rent and have a security deposit, but we deserve a chance.”
— 
Community Resident Jeremy Robinson

Resources Servicing the West Side:

Good Samaritan Health Center: On Fridays, the center off Donald Lee Hollowell Lee closes to the public and provides a health clinic exclusively for the unsheltered, which includes health screenings, treatment, hygiene kits and a meal. goodsamatlanta.org  

Hope Thru Soap: Access to mobile showers. 770-365-2612; hopethrusoap.org

Bridge of Light: Dignity Bus with showers and Wi-Fi access. bridgeoflightatl.org

The Grocery Spot: Free grocery store powered by the community. thegroceryspot.org

PAW Kids: This organization off Donald Lee Hollowell operates a food pantry called Claudia’s House. pawkids.org 

Sol Underground: Sol Underground is a mutual-aid organization in Atlanta dedicated to Black and Indigenous resistance and liberation. It operates as an autonomous community-led group that coordinates various workshops, classes, and projects. It exists to build alternative systems of living based in equity and inclusion rather than marginalization and oppression. Sol had a physical space in Grove Park for 13 months. saintsol.org

Love Beyond Walls: Mobile hand-washing and hygiene assistance. Lovebeyondwalls.org

 

Citywide Resources: 

Salvation Army:  salvationarmy.org

Atlanta City Baptist Rescue Mission: atlantabaptistrescuemission.org

Atlanta Recovery Center: atlantarecoveryplace.com

Positive Transitions: ptsga.org

Nicole’s House of Hope: nicoleshouseofhope1.org

Housing Justice League: housingjusticeleague.org

Police Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD): atlantapad.org

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