With an issue as complex and seemingly intractable as homelessness, it can be difficult to get a clear sense of what’s perception and what’s reality. And because homeless people often move from place to place, have little or limited access to healthcare (and in some cases not even an ID card), their numbers can be hard to count.
First, the facts. One reason why it might seem like downtown’s homelessness population has increased is because some shelters close during warmer summer months and more homeless people sleep outside, says Brenna Lakeson of Central Outreach and Advocacy Center. In addition, homeless people who in the past might have been sent to the city jail for urban camping or panhandling, which advocates say is essentially an attempt to criminalize homelessness or other nonviolent offenses, are now released on signature bond. Finally, some former clients of Peachtree-Pine, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless’s 100,000- square-foot shelter that could house upward of 700 men per night, either did not qualify for or rejected alternative housing when the shelter closed in 2017, though the numbers are hard to verify because of privacy laws. However, Cathryn Marchman, executive director of Partners for Home, the city’s nonprofit that oversees housing for the homeless, says 70 percent of the individuals seeking shelter at Pine have been permanently housed and that the city added 140 new beds to the system to make up for lost capacity. According to the annual census conducted by the city, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta—defined by people living on the streets, in shelters or transitional housing, or in temporary situations, like couch-surfing—actually decreased between 2014 and 2018 from 4,317 to 3,076, or 25 percent. (The people who remain on the street oftentimes are chronically homeless, Lakeson says, a group that is simultaneously the hardest to reach and the most in need of help.) Conversely, the census reported a 5 percent increase in homelessness from 2018 to 2019. George Chidi, who worked on homelessness outreach for Central Atlanta Progress, thinks the slight increase might reflect metro Atlanta’s weak social safety net. There are not nearly enough beds for people experiencing homelessness and insufficient affordable housing for people on low incomes. “Our capacity to soak up social disorder is diminishing,” Chidi says. “The sponge is full.”
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