Goodbye, Tent City

City, state ramp up effort to remove homeless living under I-20

On a recent Wednesday morning, right before the sun rose and rush-hour traffic clogged the Downtown Connector, it was nearly impossible to see along the Central Avenue ramp guiding motorists to I-75/85. This area is usually home to tents, where homeless men and women sleep.

Only this time the tents weren't there. Days earlier, city and state police descended on the site and pushed the men and women out. Officials plan to keep cracking down until the city's homeless get the message that they're not allowed under the Downtown Connector.

For more than a year, homeless people have erected tents on the grass- and gravel-covered areas under the interstate. Based on reports and interviews with campers, the area's population has ebbed and flowed due to weather, unexpected life circumstances, and, most recently, efforts to clear out the homeless from underneath the highway.

In late March, city and state officials agreed to collaboratively increase patrols underneath the interstate. Weekly visits to the camp would now become daily patrols. On March 26, Georgia State Patrol troopers and Georgia Department of Transportation crews visited the site. Atlanta Police provided support. Days earlier, law enforcement officers warned the homeless men and women about the forthcoming removal and directed them to local service providers. Mayor Kasim Reed spokesman Carlos Campos says the city has been working with nonprofits to find shelter and support for people living in Atlanta's tent cities, which officials say are unsuitable for housing and pose public health hazards.

According to two people who claimed to witness the effort, as well as a GSP report, officers ordered approximately 20 people to take their items. One witness said they were told to leave tents behind. A husband and pregnant wife were arrested for obstruction after they refused to leave the premises and scuffled with troopers. One man who has frequented the area but declined to give his name said law officers now swoop in on the site and order people to leave if they are seen setting up camp.

Not on hand that morning, however, were outreach providers such as the United Way of Metro Atlanta or the Gateway Center that could link the homeless with housing or counseling. Members of a special APD team trained to engage the homeless were on hand. Protip Biswas of the United Way said the agencies have not worked together on a removal effort "for a long time." Agency and GDOT officials met in February and the United Way wants to revive that partnership.

Since that late March effort, the homeless have largely avoided the area. Instead of tents, a handful of people could be seen sleeping on the ground without any coverings. As temperatures warm up, more could flock under the bridges. State and city officials will either help them find shelter or advise them to move along.