Untangling Homelessness: Street Teams Busier Than Ever During COVID-19 Pandemic
Frontline workers quickly shifted strategies to provide supportive housing, new alliances, health care, testing and more.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
Editors note: This story is part of an ongoing series on the issue of homelessness in Midtown. It was originally published in October 2020. See our most recent installment here.
Even before the pandemic, addressing homelessness was one of Atlanta’s more pressing issues, including in the Midtown district.
Weighing prominently on the list of quality of life challenges identified in our 2019 Midtown Community Survey, concerns around homelessness have intensified since much of the city shut down in mid-March 2020. We’ve fielded questions weekly from residents and returning workers — in our inboxes, on our social media accounts, during our Let’s Talk Midtown virtual update and on the streets — asking how the pandemic has affected people experiencing homelessness in the district and what is being done to help them.
To learn more about the multi-faceted response, we spoke to homeless outreach organizations with active street teams serving the Midtown area – and across the city – to ask how they’ve adjusted their field work in the middle of a global health crisis, what services they’re currently offering and how you can help support their efforts.
Pandemic’s Effect on Homeless Population Still Uncertain
Evidence suggested an increase in homelessness in Midtown during the first six months of the pandemic. Our Midtown Blue Public Safety Officers reported that that they interacted with roughly double the number of unsheltered people overall on Midtown’s 120 city blocks between February and October 2020. During the same time period, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer’s Food Ministry fed up to 200 people per day, when it was averaging around 80-100 pre-pandemic. And concerned residents reached out in greater numbers asking about what can be done to help.
There has not been a formal unsheltered census count since the pandemic began. The City of Atlanta’s 2020 annual homeless census count, conducted in January 2020 and known as the Point-in-Time Count, showed only a nominal increase since the previous year’s count. Although the total count - which includes those in shelters and transitional housing - remained flat, the unsheltered account rose 31 percent, although hundreds of shelter beds available the night of the census were empty.
So, was there a definite jump in the number of people on the streets since the start of the COVID-19 crisis? Cathryn Marchman, who heads up Partners for HOME, a nonprofit that works on behalf of Atlanta’s Homeless Continuum of Care and runs the Point-in-Time Count, said she hadn’t seen a citywide increase.
“People move on a regular basis, so what is true today might not be true tomorrow,” Marchman said during a September 2020 interview. “We don’t think of our total population on a daily basis, because people enter and exit every day.”
Marchman says she had not identified an increase of homeless individuals citywide due to COVID-19. Higher counts in Midtown could have been due to already unsheltered people moving from another part of the city into Midtown in search of relief because it has a large residential population, most of whom are spending the bulk of their time near home.
Homeless Outreach Adapts During COVID-19
Homeless shelters, food ministries and other outreach organizations learned along with the rest of the world about how COVID-19 spreads and how it can be mitigated or prevented. Early in the pandemic, some service providers closed their doors or suspended the intake of new cases, removing critical lifelines to those in need.
Meanwhile, organizations like Hope Atlanta and Intown Collaborative Ministries that conduct outreach via street teams also took on the role of educating people experiencing homelessness about the virus.
“We’re the best ones to get to people who are the most vulnerable, because our teams are used to going out to different encampments,” said Jeff Smythe, CEO of Hope Atlanta, an organization dedicated to fighting homelessness since the early 1900s. “There was some fear at first, not knowing the symptoms, but after we got our arms around it we were full speed ahead.”
“We gave our staff the option to continue working in the field, and 100% of them said ‘Yes, this is when we’re needed the most,’” said Brad Schweerz, Executive Director at Intown Collaborative Ministries, a local nonprofit that performs the outreach work of a citywide initiative called HomeFirst. “We’ve pivoted so many times working to get information out and getting food out to people.”
A coordinated local effort with World Central Kitchen provided about 1,000 meals a day, seven days a week for about four months in early 2020. This worldwide organization worked to mobilize several Atlanta-based restaurants to feed those in need and keep workers employed, including caterers Proof of the Pudding, and Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Midtown.
Another important component of outreach during the pandemic is, of course, COVID-19 testing. Since 1985, Mercy Care has been providing health services to people experiencing homelessness, and since the pandemic began it has started to hand out hygiene kits and offer tests. Every Monday outside the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer at Peachtree and 4th Streets, Mercy Care’s Community Health Outreach Program (CHOP) has a team of four that hands out sanitizer, masks and educational information, also providing testing. The team includes a case manager and a nurse on staff to answer any questions, and by this point most of the people they interact with are pretty well informed.
“For the most part, the people who believe there is something happening [that COVID-19 is spread through close contact] understand the symptoms,” said Yvette Williams, who heads up Mercy Care’s CHOP team. “For others it is still a work in progress.”
In spring 2020, the city and philanthropic community came together to provide $3 million to fund two hotels to house unsheltered people. One was dedicated to isolating those who had COVID-19, and the other was a “healthy hotel” for people older than 65 or with underlying conditions that made them more susceptible to the virus. It’s not only the largest single investment in the city to stop the spread of COVID-19 among the unsheltered, but also a great example of what can be achieved when different outreach groups partner with a common goal.
Operations of both hotels were overseen by Partners for HOME. Gateway Center hired the resident assistance and operations team, and Hope Atlanta and Intown Collaborative Ministries case managers worked to connect people staying at the hotels with longer-term housing and other services. Mercy Care provided testing to monitor the health of hotel residents and ensure any potential outbreaks were quickly contained.
Numbers at the isolation hotel remained consistently low at around 12-15 occupants. The “healthy” hotel reached capacity at 250 occupants, and operations wound down in late 2020 when permanent housing was identified for all of its occupants.
“The hotel operation has been a monumental feat,” Marchman said, noting that she felt it’s time to change tactics. “It’s an incredibly expensive intervention to fund, and we feel like the dollars would be better spent in permanent or temporary housing placements.”
What’s Next: Finding Innovative, Long-Term Solutions
The effects of the pandemic and economic fallout rippled across the City of Atlanta, along with the rest of the country. By the beginning of October 2020, COVID-19 cases have surpassed 7 million in the US, and the death toll is now more than 200,000 [Ediitors note: As of October 2021, total U.S. cases had surpassed 44M and more than 708K had died of COVId-19]. But through a combination of policy decisions, leveraging federal monies made available through the crises and on-the-ground partnerships that reach people where they are, this could also be Atlanta’s moment to seize the homelessness problem, make meaningful progress and emerge stronger.
The city has earmarked $11 million from the nearly $90 million it received from the CARES Act, along with other philanthropic and city funding to find housing for up to 2,000 people by the end of this calendar year. Intown Collaborative Ministries is working with the Atlanta Housing Authority and landlords to find the units needed to meet this goal, while Partners for HOME looks to raise an additional $3.6 million needed to close the gap between funds currently available and the program's strategic objectives.
“If and when we pull this off, it will easily be the largest number of unsheltered people to find housing in this short of a period of time in Georgia’s history,” said Schweerz, Executive DIrector of Intown Collaborative Ministries.
The city also allocated $22 million of funding received from the CARES Act to create a COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which will help provide rental, utility and security deposit assistance to 6,700 Atlanta residents. Midtown Assistance Center, a non-profit dedicated to helping people at risk of losing their housing since the late 1980s, is one of 24 organizations selected to distribute funding for the program. MAC had no trouble identifying households who need the money, as last year it tripled the amount of services it normally provides.
“We have helped so many people this year who have never needed assistance in the past,” said Jennifer Jobson, executive director at MAC.
Another new approach is Hope Atlanta’s partnership with MARTA. The pilot project will pair two Hope Atlanta case managers with trained Field Protective Specialists under the auspices of the MARTA Police Department to engage with unsheltered individuals on the agency’s property. This also addresses customer concerns about people experiencing homelessness using MARTA for shelter.
“What MARTA has done is to really think through their policing and ask if they could do some case management in lieu of policing to get further, faster,” said Smythe. “For some of the people we engage with, we’ll work on short-term emergency solutions right away. For others it will be longer term and connected with something else, like a bus ticket and a reunification program, or a substance abuse program. We certainly hit Midtown often.”
Midtown Blue Public Safety Officers Undergo Homeless Outreach Training
Midtown Blue, the public safety force that acts as the “eyes and ears” of the Midtown community, is also stepping up its homeless outreach program this year. For years, Midtown Blue public safety officers (PSOs) have performed welfare checks on unsheltered people they find sleeping outside in the district, and in an effort to provide them more help, PSO Kristian McClendon has compiled in-depth research on the city’s shelters, soup kitchens and other available resources, creating a playbook for staff.
Workers on the front-lines will tell you that it takes an average of nine to 15 interactions before a person experiencing homelessness will accept help, which makes it all the more important to offer them meaningful information that can actually help people improve their lives. Now, all of Midtown Blue PSOs are receiving training on homeless outreach.
“Fewer people are reporting to their offices in Midtown during the pandemic, but our homeless population has continued to increase,” said Midtown Alliance Director of Public Safety and Operations Marcus Neville during a September 2020 interview. “Through our outreach program, our PSOs are staying engaged, building relationships and working to get more unsheltered people to accept services that will get them off the streets.”
The pandemic has made the issue of homelessness more difficult than ever to navigate. But we can be assured that there will be workers on the front lines fighting to end homelessness through innovative partnerships that likely wouldn’t have happened before.
How You Can Help
There are more than 100 medical, public safety, non-profit and housing organizations working to end homelessness in Atlanta. And there are many ways you can get involved.
Instead of giving money to an individual experiencing homelessness, consider donating your time, money or other items like food, face masks and sanitizer to these organizations or others fighting to end homelessness. Here’s where you can contribute to the non-profits mentioned in the Untangling Homelessness series and other organizations in Midtown:
- Community Friendship Inc.
- First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta Community Ministries
- Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
- Midtown Assistance Center
Share resources for those experiencing homelessness. See a list of open shelters here.
If you need assistance with rent and utilities, visit here.
- Read other stories in our Untangling Homelessness investigative series