Atlanta homeless population shrinks

City touts success with homeless but grapples with panhandlers

Tiny to the point of appearing shriveled, Jessica looks much older than her 48 years. Which shouldn't be a surprise, considering she has HIV, suffers from mental illness and has been homeless perhaps half her life.

For the past several years, she lived in the bushes outside City Hall, which is where former Atlanta Councilwoman Debi Starnes first met her. Starnes estimates that she had suggested to Jessica on at least 50 occasions that she go to a shelter or ask help from a social-service agency – only to be cussed out.

Last week, however, Jessica said she had changed her mind; she was ready to check in to the city's Gateway Center, where she could be assigned temporary housing and evaluated for treatment as part of a comprehensive program aimed at stabilizing lives gripped by addiction and psychosis. The last they spoke, Jessica told Starnes she must've been sent by God to help her.

Such are the incremental victories in the battle against homelessness.

But the group overseeing that war now says those efforts are paying off. The Regional Commission on Homelessness just marked the halfway point of its ambitious, 10-year initiative to end – that's right, end – chronic homelessness in metro Atlanta with an optimistic report. Former King & Spalding partner Horace Sibley, the group's chairman, says it could actually complete its mandate within the next two or three years, before its self-imposed deadline.

How is such a goal conceivable when downtown sidewalks and parks seem more clogged than ever with panhandlers? Just one ironic example: When I went to meet with Starnes and Sibley, I parked across the street from City Hall and was hit up for change by three different people before I even reached the front steps.

Sibley explains that we're talking here about two distinct groups. The commission targets the long-term homeless, people who have lived in a shelter or under a bridge for more than a year. He estimates Atlanta may have fewer than 2,000 who fit that definition.

On the other hand, he says, "A lot of the panhandlers aren't homeless at all." Instead, many are crackheads, vagrants or professional beggars for whom bumming money from frightened tourists is their preferred job.

In other words, it could be argued that Atlanta is winning the war against chronic homelessness but losing the battle against panhandling.

The Commission on Homelessness was created in 2002 when Mayor Shirley Franklin – with encouragement from the feds – asked the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta to form a group that would tackle the problem on a regional basis. The move represented a clean break from past practices of setting up soup kitchens and handing out blankets in winter, says Starnes, a member of the commission and Franklin's policy advisor on homelessness.

"We don't want to serve the homeless," Starnes says. "We want to get them off the street."

To that end, the Gateway Center, which opened three years ago in the former city jail, is continually filled, with specified numbers of its 310 beds set aside for women and children, addicts preparing for treatment, veterans and the mentally ill. A half block from City Hall, Hope House – the city's supportive housing facility, where occupants are looked after by case workers and provided necessary medications – is occupied by 76 men who used to roam Atlanta's streets and viaducts.

Administered by the United Way and staffed by dozens of private nonprofits from across metro Atlanta, the program has succeeded in reuniting 8,000 homeless with their families, Starnes says, sometimes even mediating with estranged relations. Research shows that the number of long-term homeless in the city has dropped by at least 16 percent in recent years, she says.

Just last week, Atlanta – in partnership with Fulton and DeKalb counties – announced a $2.9 million federal grant that Starnes says will enable the city to get its estimated 300 local homeless veterans off the streets and into supportive housing by the end of the year.

Philip Mangano, the Bush administration's homelessness czar and the man who brought the check, says Atlanta serves as a national model.

"No city has a larger private-sector investment in combating homelessness," he says, referring to the commission's healthy $30 million endowment – which supplements an additional $20 million in public funds. "The numbers tell me Atlanta is in the forefront of cities dealing with this issue."

Sibley acknowledges that the city's next challenge is to communicate its successes to a public that's lost patience with being accosted by beggars on downtown streets. This past spring, an Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau survey showed that, among visitor complaints, panhandling ranked only behind traffic.

And, by most accounts, the city's panhandlers are getting increasingly aggressive, says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a private group that promotes downtown businesses.

"Those of us who work and live downtown can spot the difference between homeless people and professional panhandlers, but a tourist wouldn't," he says. "On the surface, it may look like the numbers of homeless aren't declining."

Starnes says the city is about to launch a new assault on panhandling. The first move will be a marketing campaign asking people not to give money to beggars. Next, the United Way will promote alternative ways to help the homeless, perhaps even setting up donation boxes in downtown hotels and restaurants where people can deposit coins they didn't give to panhandlers.

Finally, Atlanta police will coordinate with other public and private entities, from GSU police to hotel security guards, in stepping up enforcement and making beggars feel unwelcome. A 2005 city ordinance establishing a "no-panhandling zone" downtown has been a bust because enforcement trailed off. But Robinson says downtown businesses are committed to helping a cash-strapped city crack down on panhandlers.

"Beginning Sept. 1," he says, "we're going to step up nontolerance of panhandlers and you'll see some changes downtown."