This story originally appeared in October 2019 as part of our “Untangling Homelessness” series. We reached out to partners during the COVID-19 pandemic to see what they’re currently doing. See our update here.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
Editor's Note: This story is the second in a three-part series.
There are approximately 3,200 homeless living within the City of Atlanta’s 130 square-mile footprint, including nearly 400 that are considered “chronically homeless” because they do not have access to shelter and have been on the streets for a year or more. In our first installment in this series, we looked at how the number of homeless people are declining in Atlanta, gathering insight from individuals deeply involved in this difficult issue, including the faith community, business leaders and the City of Atlanta.
In this next installment, we shadowed individuals on the frontline - whose efforts go largely unnoticed - to learn how they work with Midtown’s chronically homeless population, and what goes into helping them change their circumstances and get off the streets. We also checked in on an individual currently in the pipeline to receive the help he needs to transition out of homelessness. Here are their stories:
Alarm Clock: Midtown Blue Public Safety Officer Byron Watkins Checks on Homeless at Sunrise
Long before many of us are headed to work or even awake, Midtown Blue Public Safety Officer Byron Watkins is on patrol in the Midtown Improvement District to perform welfare checks on people experiencing homelessness. Because this work happens quietly before sunrise, few residents or workers even know about it. For example, only one in three respondents to the 2019 Midtown Community Survey knew about this function of Midtown Blue’s daily work.
After working this pre-dawn beat for more than two years, Watkins knows their names, their stories, where they’ve been before and the circumstances that led them to live on the streets.
“We are going to many of the same locations and waking up the same people every day. Watkins said. “It’s not hard to find the homeless, it’s just hard to help them.”
Watkins’ duties at 6:00am include moving people along from sleeping in the public right of way, and on private property including the doorsteps of condos, restaurants and other businesses.
“I’m their alarm clock,” Watkins said. Watkins, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, usually goes out alone to perform these welfare checks. He said he approaches people with caution. The task requires balancing law enforcement (sleeping in the public right-of-way is illegal per City code) with compassion. While Atlanta Police Department (APD) can’t enter private property to do this, Midtown Blue personnel can, performing this function with express written permission from property owners.
But what is the ideal balance for handling personal safety and compliance when incidents occur on private property? For context, there are roughly 450 private buildings in the Midtown Improvement District. Midtown Blue public safety personnel cannot be everywhere at once. Some buildings employ private security staff. Others ask Midtown Blue to handle issues as needed.
The cooperation between APD and Midtown Blue is among the most misunderstood facets of public safety in Midtown. Both entities work in close collaboration - APD officers and Midtown Blue’s civilian security team even share office space in Midtown. But Midtown Blue provides supplemental public safety services that focus on the public right of way and exist in addition to, not in place of, APD’s authority to enforce the law.
Building Trust Day by Day
On patrol, Watkins asks the people he encounters about their mental and physical health, and medical condition and offers to connect them with resources to help get them off the streets.
“I take a quieter approach and work to build trust,” he said. “I say good morning, talk to them about available resources and I ask what services they might need.”
Watkins finds there are some individuals on Midtown’s streets who could avail themselves of services but consciously choose not to. Why doesn’t everyone experiencing homelessness want to change their circumstances? See more examination of this issue in Part I of our series.
According to the annual Atlanta homeless point-in-time count, two out of three homeless adults in the City of Atlanta are dealing with a serious mental illness or substance abuse issue. When Watkins comes across these people, he does not treat them any differently.
“You have to get to know them as individuals to understand why they do what they do and why they act out,” he said. “Sometimes they are military veterans, sometimes they may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or they are off their medication.”
In the winter, Watkins finds more people sleeping on private property — especially places like parking garages where there is some respite from the cold and wind. But overall, he says he has seen numbers decrease “a lot” in Midtown since Midtown Blue’s Homeless Outreach Program began.
Intown Collaborative Ministries: HomeFirst Initiative’s Feet on the Ground
Earlier this year, the City of Atlanta passed a $26 million Homeless Opportunity Bond that was matched by private sector partners and coordinated by The United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. These resources, which include $100,000 contributed by the Midtown Improvement District, fund objectives of an initiative called HomeFirst, including permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing, continuum of care infrastructure, housing subsidies and services and emergency low barrier shelters. As its name implies, the HomeFirst initiative takes a housing-first approach, where many other programs are focused on shelters or require people to first secure jobs or address mental health and other issues.
The organizational chart is hard to decipher as there are more than 100 medical, public safety, non-profit and housing organizations that comprise Atlanta’s umbrella moniker of the Homeless Continuum of Care.
One of these, the nonprofit Partners for HOME, works on behalf of the City to direct the HomeFirst initiative. HomeFirst itself doesn’t have any employees. Instead, HomeFirst initiatives are carried out by Intown Collaborative Ministries (ICM), a local nonprofit founded more than a decade ago. ICM employs seven homeless outreach case managers to canvas the City of Atlanta, two of whom are currently working in greater Midtown.
Transition Happens in Four Steps Over Several Months
ICM uses a four-step homeless outreach process that starts with engaging with a person an average of nine to 15 times before they will accept help. Again, it’s all about building trust, said ICM Executive Director Brad Schweers.
“For people sleeping outside, homelessness is deadly,” Schweers said. “There are dozens of people who sleep outside every year who die on the streets. Your first night on the street could be your last. If you're on the street, you have to trust and distrust the right people. So when we approach people, we are assuming they are distrustful of us.”
The first time case managers approach a person, they usually just bring food or say hello — personal questions and offers to find housing are saved for a later visit.
Enrollment in the outreach program is the second step. Navigating the person through obtaining government-issued identification documents, medical care, mental health services, rehabilitation and benefits is the third. Schweers said this process can take five months or more.
“It tends to be very frustrating, and we tell them that,” Schweers said. “There’s a number of variables outside of anyone’s control.”
Part of these steps includes assigning a relative vulnerability score, with factors including gender, previous assault, time spent in jail or the ER. The higher your score, the higher in the City of Atlanta’s housing queue you are placed — ICM and other homeless outreach programs can’t control where people are placed on the list, but while people are waiting they do work on getting identification documents and other necessary components to secure housing.
When the two Midtown caseworkers hired as a part of the HomeFirst initiative accompanied Midtown Blue public safety officers on a welfare check in the spring, they maxed out their caseloads the very first day. The two case managers are working with a total of 37 clients in the Midtown area.
“One of the bottlenecks is that we don’t have enough beds to place into,” Schweers said. “Then there are the support services. Even if you have people that are interested, qualified and high-scoring [on the vulnerability index], it’s going to be a little bit of a wait.”
Housing is the fourth and final step in ICM’s process, and Schweers said all of the clients taken on as a part of the HomeFirst initiative are still waiting for homes. However, the program has historically proven effective — since August 2017, ICM has housed 40 clients that had previously spent time in the MID boundary, including 31 from the Peachtree and Pine Shelter Relocation Program.
Meet “Believe:” Referred For Assistance by Midtown Blue
Altogether, more than 100K people spend time in a one square mile area of Midtown each day. We spoke to one of the .0004% in this neighborhood who are currently experiencing homelessness, asking him about his situation and what he wants to do about it.
“Believe” has been in Georgia and on the streets for three years, living mostly in Midtown. He battles substance abuse and has been in and out of prison eight times.
He currently doesn’t have a birth certificate, which stands in his way of finding housing, and he is adamantly against living in a shelter, which he states have strict rules, are crowded and can even be dangerous.
“I choose to be here [on the streets], because I don’t like being confined,” he said. “I don't like being controlled, because I've been incarcerated. When I can't move around, I'm not free.”
Believe has formed a trusting relationship with several Midtown Blue public safety officers, including Byron Watkins and Kristian McClendon, who was featured in the first part of our series on homelessness for her work to establish a formal outreach program. Midtown Blue introduced Believe to the Intown Collaborative Ministries team, and he is among the first of the clients the non-profit took on in Midtown as part of the HomeFirst initiative. His case is still in the earlier stage of ICM’s process.
“I just have to wait patiently until the time comes," he said about getting support and housing. "My time is coming, I just don’t know when.”
Part II Recap: Untangling Homeless Outreach
What we learned about outreach and compliance work happening in Midtown:
- Few people who spend time in Midtown know about Midtown Blue’s work with homeless people, which runs the gamut from morning wake-ups to welfare checks and offering help.
- The efforts to build relationships with homeless people in Midtown have helped pave the way for outreach and assessment to begin: new street teams working in greater Midtown via the HomeFirst initiative have 37 active cases they are working on right now to help clients with everything from obtaining ID to medical assistance referrals and supportive housing.
- While there are success stories happening throughout the City of Atlanta, the available resources to help people experiencing homelessness are still not enough relative to the need: Intown Collaborative Ministries reps essentially maxed out their caseload for Midtown on their first day of joint work with Midtown Blue.
Intown Collaborative Ministries Plays Key Role in Pandemic Response
Schweerz' team at ICM has been one of several organizations to help staff downtown hotels where people experiencing homelessness can stay if they test positive for COVID-19 or are vulnerable to contracting the virus. They're also currently working with the City on a rapid rehousing effort using funds from the CARES Act. Read more here.
Catch up on the other stories we've researched and developed for this series: