BY ELLIE HENSLEY
Editor’s Note: This story is the third in a three-part series.
More than 20,000 residents call Midtown Atlanta home, from those in the highest income bracket to those currently living without roofs over their heads. For the past three months, we’ve examined the issue of homelessness in the district and spoken to individuals and groups who are helping find jobs, wellness resources and permanent housing for others in need.
This month’s installment features Midtown Blue Public Safety Officer (PSO) Chandral Pickett and a man she recently helped to find his way out of homelessness. Until early October 2019, Clarence Betts counted himself among the City of Atlanta’s 3,217 homeless— now he has a job, a roof over his head and hope for the future.
Read more about his story and find out how PSO Pickett and others are assisting people in the only way that works – on a personal, one-to-one basis.
Tactical Needs: Pickett Compiles Resources into Helpful Guide for the Homeless
Chandral Pickett’s main job responsibilities as a Midtown Blue Public Safety Officer are to ensure that Midtown is safe and welcoming. When she came on board in January 2019, she was immediately interested in getting involved with Midtown Blue’s Homeless Outreach Program.
In 2018, Midtown Blue Public Safety Officer Kristian McClendon helped to create a program that would allow her and other Midtown Blue officers to help people experiencing homelessness as she was patrolling the district. Read more about Officer McClendon's work in our earlier installment on untangling homelessness here.
“I was gung ho on everything my colleague Kristian was doing, and I pushed it a little bit further,” Pickett said. “I’m taking it upon myself to help them find places to live and all the resources out there.”
Midtown Blue’s program already involves daily welfare checks with the district’s homeless people. Every morning at 6 a.m., Public Safety Officer Byron Watkins wakes up people he finds sleeping in the public right-of-way, and while he does ask them to move along, he also asks about their mental and physical health and offers to connect them with resources. Read about Watkins' pre-dawn welfare checks here.
Highly Customized, Local Information Related to Need
But the officers are always looking for ways to expand the program, and Pickett has found one in bringing handmade paper pamphlets with her when she is on patrol. She hands out information she has compiled on where to look for housing and resources for getting by while people are searching.
Some of the research she finds is available online or through partners, but Pickett also has found that former or current homeless people are an excellent source for information.
“People who have been out here for years know where almost everything is, what to do and what not to do,” Pickett said. “I always tell them, ‘If you find something out there I don’t already know about, please tell me. Because if it’s helpful to you, it will probably be helpful to someone else.’”
A well-known resource are the several churches around Midtown that serve meals, including Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, which recently marked its two millionth meal served since 1982. Pickett often distributes information outside these churches when people are lined up for meals.
Listening for Opportunities to Act
It can take 9 to 15 interactions with homeless people before they will accept help, but Pickett stops and talks to each person she meets when she’s on the beat. When they’re ready to share their stories, she will spend as much time with them as she can, explaining their options and even helping them fill out applications for jobs, housing and public resources.
“I can’t just turn a blind eye,” said Pickett, whose former jobs have run the gamut from a position at a Sheriffs’ Department to driving a school bus. “I’m passionate about things like human dignity. Even when I was in school myself, I was always taking up for the kid getting bullied.“
In a span of a few months, Pickett has helped six homeless individuals in Midtown find either homes, jobs or both. In each, she has uncovered a different need, including chronic depression, separation from family members, injury or loss of government-issued identification.
Read on to learn how her efforts recently helped one person, Clarence Betts, get off the streets.
Formerly Homeless Man Uses Officer Pickett’s Pamphlets to Find His Way
Clarence Betts first moved to Atlanta in 2000 because he had dreams of making it in the film industry as a director. Originally from Mississippi, Betts was attending Georgia State University when his plans hit some snags — he was suspended from school because of poor grades, and thus unable to receive financial aid. That same year, he lost his job.
“I thought it was time to pack my bags and return home, but jobs back home are few and far between,” said Betts, now 43. “I was going back to absolutely nothing. So I decided to stick it out in Atlanta, though that meant I was homeless.”
Betts ran into others experiencing homelessness who told him about the Peachtree-Pine Shelter, where he lived on and off for more than six years.
“I would find a job that would pay me a decent wage, move out of the shelter, end up losing that job and move back in,” he said. “That was just the way it worked.”
Then in 2016, Betts landed a job that he was able to keep for two years. For the first time in more than a decade, he was renting a room in a rooming house, able to open a checking account and saving money. But in 2018 his sister in Mississippi died, which “rocked him to his core.”
“I lost focus, I lost passion, I just couldn’t do a single thing,” he said. “I quit my job two weeks after I returned from my sister’s funeral.”
Betts became homeless again and lived in Midtown and Downtown parks, including Hurt Park, Centennial Olympic Park and Piedmont Park. Sometimes he was able to sleep on friends’ floors or couches.
“For the most part, the street was my bed,” he said.
One Saturday, Betts was waiting outside Saint Marks United Methodist Church for a meal when he met Pickett.
“We struck up a conversation and she said she would wait for me after breakfast was over, and she did,” he said. “We talked for a long time, and she gave me her pamphlets.”
Pickett tells people not to take her information if they aren’t going to use it, but Betts promised he would get started immediately.
Betts said he treated the information Pickett gave him like “the Bible,” and used it to avail himself of places that offered assistance with things like shelter, MARTA cards, clothing, hygiene and grooming.
After learning that Betts years of experience in the security field, she provided Betts contact information for local security companies and encouraged him to apply.
Recently, Betts landed a job in Buckhead working for SecureAmerica. He has been able to use his earnings to secure housing in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, and is working toward his goals of saving up enough money to buy his own place and return to school.
“I told myself I had to come to grips with my sister’s death and do something,” Betts said. “Because if I didn’t, I would’ve wound up dying on these streets.”
Working to Address Today's Needs, With an Eye on the Future
Thousands of Atlantans are still homeless, and a lot of work remains to be done. The City of Atlanta, business community, faith-based organizations and nonprofits all have outreach initiatives that together form an intricate mosaic with different strategies for achieving a common goal – to make homelessness in Atlanta rare, brief and nonrecurring.
Catch up on the other stories we've researched and developed for this series: