Officials scramble to house homeless women and children after service network collapse

As Springdale Place reopens, Atlanta and Fulton retool homeless approach

In the final months of 2013, Atlanta's homelessness service network was thrown into disarray. The Tri-Jurisdictional Collaborative, the official partnership between Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties to direct federal cash to homeless service providers, collapsed after more than a decade of working together. Over the past year, homeless women and children have suffered as part of the fallout.

Budget cuts forced Fulton to shut down two 150-bed women's shelters. The city's go-to Downtown homeless facility stopped offering a place to sleep each night to as many as 200 women. And the city's largest shelter came precariously close to shutting down. Now officials are scrambling to find beds for the women and children before winter begins.

Two months ago, city officials were preparing for the closure of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless' massive 700-bed shelter — the city's largest — for failing to pay a nearly $600,000 unpaid water bill. Mayor Kasim Reed and Fulton County Chairman John Eaves last month agreed to stop jousting over homelessness policies — or lack thereof — and started crafting a plan to find alternate beds to avert a major crisis. But an anonymous private donor paid off Peachtree-Pine's debt in the eleventh hour.

Peachtree-Pine avoided closing its doors. Nevertheless, officials, refusing to rely on Task Force Executive Director Anita Beaty's operation, have moved forward to reopen some of Atlanta's shelters available to homeless women and children. Tri-J's January 2013 census, the last official measure of metro Atlanta's homeless population, counted 334 homeless women and children sleeping on sidewalks, in parks, and under bridges. Considering the closure of several shelters, which has lowered the number of available beds for women and children, it's possible that figure has increased.

Fulton County and Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm, have inked a deal to reopen Springdale Place, one of the two recently shuttered Fulton shelters. City of Refuge, a nonprofit that has operated a 325-bed shelter in Hunter Hills exclusively for women and children since 1997, will oversee operations of the 150-bed facility for homeless women and children in southwest Atlanta.

According to City of Refuge CEO Bruce Deel, Springdale Place is expected to open its doors again on Nov. 3. He says many of the shelter's initial residents will be transferred from Peachtree-Pine. Approximately 70 women and children sleep each night on mats placed on the floors of the facility's lobby and conference room, according to Beaty.

Beaty, who supports the City of Refuge transfer, says the number of women and children at Peachtree-Pine has increased over the past year because of a policy change at the Gateway Center, a separate Downtown homeless service provider that frequently partners with the city. Gateway Public Relations Director Jason Tatum says the shelter began transitioning as many as 200 women and children to City of Refuge in August 2013 to "best serve the dignity of these individuals" by providing them with beds instead of floor mats.

Deel says Springdale Place residents will receive the same support services offered at City of Refuge. After an initial assessment period of 30 days, women and children typically stay with the nonprofit for up to 180 days with a full range of services including food, housing, health care, childcare, and case management. The United Way of Greater Atlanta and Regional Commission on Homelessness will underwrite more than $250,000 of Springdale Place's costs through May. Eaves says an anonymous philanthropist has pledged additional cash to support what Deel projects will be a $650,000 annual operation.

Beyond Springdale Place, Atlanta Deputy Operating Officer Kristin Wilson says the city will focus on increasing the amount of affordable housing in hopes of breaking the cycle of homelessness for women and children. That decision, Wilson says, has happened in part because federal officials have prioritized funding for more transitional and permanent housing efforts instead of opening shelters.

The city is still figuring out specifics for its future affordable housing approach. They've so far provided housing to more than a thousand chronically homeless residents, most of whom are veterans. But it still has a long way to go, Beaty says, with the cost of living making it increasingly difficult for residents to climb out of extreme poverty.

Before that happens, the city needs to get past the damage done by Tri-J's demise. Looking back, Eaves considers Tri-J's collapse to be a major "mistake" that set back efforts to take care of the region's homeless residents. But he says the days of working in silos are slowly ending. "It's happening now because I think our backs are against the wall," he says.

It seems, now, that local government officials might finally be back on the table.

"We're having conversations with Fulton and DeKalb on a fairly frequent basis," says Reed Senior Advisor Melissa Mullinax. "We don't always agree with our partners. But that partnership has to continue."