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Beltline is no home to homeless

As 22-mile greenspace loop becomes more developed, men and women living along project will be nudged along

By day, Sammy cleans parking lots and empties trash for bars in Little Five Points. At night, he beds down on a hunk of foam under the Freedom Parkway bridge along the Atlanta Beltline and falls asleep to the gentle thuds of cars passing overhead.

For the past year, the 31-year-old native of Cambodia has watched construction crews transform a nearby wooded area into a skate park and multiuse field — one of the proposed 22-mile greenspace and trail loop's most popular features.

"It's quiet," he says as he sits on a graffiti-covered incline, less than 100 feet away from a mound of sweet-smelling garbage dumped from above. "It's windy. It's perfect. It feels great."

He's already seen several of his homeless neighbors asked to leave the area by police. And, as the former railroad corridor continues its transformation into a linear park, it's likely he'll be told to move along as well.

"I don't know where to go," he says.

Only a few years ago, much of the Beltline, the 22-mile loop of parks and trails circling Atlanta's urban core, was a dense woodland following a set of unused railroad tracks littered with the occasional homeless encampment. Beltline officials and Atlanta police have long turned a blind eye toward the campers, provided they didn't cause any problems — often even giving them advance notice of cleanups.

But with progress accelerating on the $2.8 billion project and increased concerns from residents, city officials are starting to deal with the delicate question of how to relocate some long-term Beltline residents, particularly in the project's northeastern segment between Lindbergh and DeKalb Avenue, where work crews are building a bike trail. How the process plays out will provide a small glimpse into Atlanta's ongoing struggle with addressing homelessness.

"It's not a good place for them to be," says Peggy Denby, president of the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, of the homeless who live along the Beltline near Piedmont Park. "They can't mix with regular people. They want to destroy everything the Beltline is putting in."

Though no official numbers are available, as many as 30 people live semipermanently under bridges or in tents and makeshift shelters on or along the Beltline. That's not counting the various train-jumpers and itinerants looking for a place to spend a night. Some of these men and women have set up residency on the Beltline for the same reason that nearby residents have started using the project for dog walks and jogging paths — it offers fast, direct routes between parts of town. Some undeveloped portions of the former rail line also constitute one of Atlanta's few wooded, relatively safe refuges near homeless outreach centers, transit stops and grocery stores.

Among the longtime Beltline residents is Roger, who has lived with his cat, Cleopatra, under the Piedmont Road bridge near Ansley Mall since having to leave a nearby empty home. Tony, who wears long johns even in the summer heat to ward off mosquitoes, makes his home under a bridge near Washington Park. And when he's not at a local college studying to be a mechanic, Isaac (who asked that his real name not be used) can be found in the tree house camouflaged by kudzu and old tents where he's spent the past nine years near the West End. Up the trail a short walk sits an eerily quiet, well-organized cluster of six tents hidden in a wooded thicket. Elsewhere along the Beltline are various huts built by the Mad Housers, a local group that builds sturdy, no-frills temporary shelters for the homeless.

For the last several months, officials from Atlanta Beltline Inc. have consulted with local and regional support agencies to develop a protocol for assisting the homeless along the corridor. Also involved is a special unit of Atlanta police officers trained in identifying and engaging with homeless people — specifically those living with mental illness or substance abuse problems — called the HOPE Team. Five days a week, two separate two-man teams of police officers travel to areas across the city where nearby residents, businesses or other police have reported homeless people living.

In the past, says Lt. Brent Schierbaum, who oversees the division which includes the HOPE Team, officers would simply lock up the homeless. Now, the officers talk with them and, depending on a person's needs, determine what type of assistance might help him get off the street.

Some of the homeless are directed to the United Way's Street to Home program, which places people in shared apartments and assigns a case manager to guide them through the labyrinthine social service system. According to Protip Biswas, the vice president of homelessness at the United Way, 75 percent of the people who enter the program stay. A 2008 study by Georgia State University found that such programs save local governments more than $5,000 per person in emergency room treatment, jail and other costs.

"The Beltline is shining a spotlight on this problem," says Matthew Garbett, president of the Fourth Ward Neighbors, a community organization whose residents are divided on how the situation under Freedom Parkway should be addressed. "In this regard, this is a failure of our city and our state for, well, forever, to not provide adequate services for the homeless. The issue isn't where the Beltline is dislocating them to, but why aren't there services for them to be relocated to?"

Roger says he knows he and Cleopatra will one day have to move along from under Piedmont Road. He has some ideas about where he could go as well. "I think it's sad that the homeless are looked at as eyesores," he says. "Most cities just want to show you the shining light. It'd be nice if the homeless could fit in somehow. But in capitalism there will always be someone on the bottom. How will we treat them?"