Atlanta is known for many things: Its vibrant and thriving music and entertainment scene, its storied civil rights history and progressive will, and of course, its failing sports teams.
But one oft-overlooked population of the city is its shelterless population.
For the past two years, the city’s shelterless population has trended upward. Yet, little has been written about why and how some residents become that way.
One way in ascertaining that is to accurately and effectively count the city’s shelterless population and tally some of the challenges they face.
Partners For Home, a nonprofit that manages the Atlanta continuum of care for shelterless services, is tasked with counting the city’s shelterless.
Last August, the organization released its annual Point-In-Time count, which revealed Atlanta has 3,240 shelterless residents, a .007 increase from last year. Among that number, approximately 939 of them were shelterless.
Because the count was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial impact on residents, it won’t include those who may have become newly shelterless.
On the night of Jan. 27, 2020, more than 340 people took to the streets to count the city’s shelterless population. The detailed process usually starts at 9 p.m. and can last into the wee hours of the morning.
It’s a tedious process, but a needed effort in ensuring the city has an accurate count of its shelterless population, which consists of sheltered and unsheltered residents.
Nationwide, Atlanta ranks 31st among U.S. cities with high shelterless counts, according to data released by HUD. New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago are in the top three spots, respectively. Their populations are also more than double that of Atlanta.
While Atlanta’s shelterless population isn’t as large compared to other major U.S. cities, there are alarming statistics that stand out to Partners for Home Executive Director Cathryn Marchman: Atlanta also continues to have a high number of African-American shelterless residents; they make up 88 percent of the city’s shelterless population.
Another concern: While there are enough shelter beds to accommodate the unsheltered, 939 residents are unsheltered on city streets — an increase of 31 percent from last year.
“I think one of the only conclusions we can draw is that people are choosing to sleep outside as opposed to sleeping shelters and transitional housing,” Marchman said, adding that too many rules, curfew, and access were some of the reasons residents were not sheltered. “And then if we draw that out one step further, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that shelter beds are not accessible enough.
“The barriers to getting into a shelter and transitional housing are far too high,” she continued. “We’ve known that for quite some time.”
Some of those barriers have been exactly what deters shelterless residents like Carl Williams from seeking shelter in some of the programs offered around the city, even when there are beds available.
We talked with Williams as he was making his way through Woodruff Park, balancing transporting his belongings with using a walker to get around.
“Most of the places have a curfew,” recalled Williams, who, as a self-proclaimed functioning alcoholic, said he battles with a number of personal demons. “The programs can be a big help but most times you really need (more) help … with depression and mental health. But (these programs) are not doing all that. They’re just putting you in a place because they’re getting paid for it.”
“Some people can do it and some can’t,” he concluded.
Williams, who said he worked as a groundskeeper for more than 20 years at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, has opted for his odds at survival on the streets instead.
Atlanta is required to submit bi-annual information to HUD, but they do an annual count to have more consistent, regular data, Marchman said. The city’s count includes those sleeping in a shelter or transitional housing bed and those that are unsheltered.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which tracks shelterless populations in the United States, does not allow for those living in extended-stay inns or couch surfing to be included in the count.
“We have a strict definition that the federal government sets that we adhere to,” Marchman said.
Data on shelters and transitional housing is pulled from Partners From Home’s homeless management information system. For the unsheltered count, Partners for Home divides the city into the six Atlanta police zones.
Thirty teams of seven people are assigned a zone to the canvas. The assignments are based on the volume of people experiencing shelterlessness in those locations.
Volunteers are also charged with asking shelterless residents survey questions, including if they have a chronic illness.
“For downtown, where we know there’s a lot more who are outside and need to be surveyed, we assign more teams versus a residential part of Buckhead where we know there are fewer people to count.”
Free training is provided ahead of the count; in 2020, because of the pandemic, training was conducted virtually. Last year was also the first year an app was used to survey shelterless residents. In past years, the survey was completely recorded by hand.
“The app enabled us to collect the data a lot more efficiently as opposed to having them manually entered into a system,” Marchman said, adding they were able to geocode the locations of where the surveys were taken.
In the days following the nighttime count, volunteers collect data at shelterless service locations such as soup kitchens to capture residents they may have missed.
While the counting process has become more refined with time, Marchman does acknowledge the challenge nighttime volunteers have in getting information from shelterless residents. Some residents may not want to be forthcoming with personal information.
“When I send a volunteer in the middle of the night to wake up a shelterless person, [to ask] do you have a mental health issue or do you have an addiction,” Marchman said, “the likelihood of someone wanting to share that with a complete stranger in the middle of the night is probably less than ideal.”
But the Point-In-Time statistics also help Partners For Home improve their processes. For instance, the nonprofit will use the information to better coordinate street outreach for its unsheltered and chronic populations.
There are also efforts to lower barriers across their system to increase access to emergency shelter and transitional housing beds, which are drastically underutilized.
Despite improvements to the system, Marchman noted the count is not the only bit of reference they rely on.
“I think at this point we’ve really refined our process and we have a really good, reliable system in place,” Marchman said. “But the reality is, Point-In-Time is one data point of many, many others that we rely on to help us gauge our progress. It’s not the end all be all in terms of how we determine how we’re doing in producing.
“So, we’re looking at housing places, we’re looking at inflow and outflow of our subpopulations. We’re looking at more real-time data of how many people are getting access to our housing, and how many people our outreach teams are engaging. It’s just one data point among many, many others, and it’s never going to be perfect.”