Police and a parks group are pushing more than 100 homeless people to leave wooded camps along Peachtree Creek in the Lindbergh and Buford Highway areas, alleging they’re involved in crime and scaring trail users.

Meanwhile, Brookhaven police say the effort may be driving the homeless people into their city. And it remains to be seen whether the camps will move or for how long, as social service advocates say that homelessness is a persistent issue in a metro region with high income inequality and rising housing costs.

Atlanta Police officers examine a homeless camp off the Cheshire Farm Trail during a Sept. 25 visit. (South Fork Conservancy/Sally Sears)

The South Fork Conservancy, a group building paths along the creek, joined Atlanta Police officers, city code enforcement and solicitor’s office representatives, and outreach specialists from the homeless assistance organization HOPE Atlanta on Sept. 25 visits to the camps, which were later publicized in a conservancy press release.

“It was wretched,” said Sally Sears, a board member and founding director of the conservancy, describing a camp of 80 to 100 people under Buford Highway near the Atlanta-Brookhaven border. Sears is also a CBS46 TV news journalist who reported on the issue as well.

No one was immediately forced out of the camps, Sears said. Instead, there was a carrot-and-stick approach, with police reminding them that “urban camping” is illegal and urging them to leave within a few days or lose their belongings and face arrest, while HOPE workers advised them on shelters and assistance programs. Property owners may be cited as well, Sears said.

Homeless people have long lived in the area and there have been similar official sweeps in recent years. Why the current push to remove them? Sears said the camps and homeless people are “more and more unattractive for our trail users,” but added, “I think the tipping point was the burglary rate.”

Police officials in Buckhead’s Zone 2 have said burglary is on the rise, especially in storage units, and Sears said there was concern that some campers are involved. Identifiable stolen items were found at one camp in the Morningside Nature Preserve, she said.

Atlanta Police Department spokespersons confirmed that they believe there is a connection between crime and the camps, but also said none of the homeless people were charged.

“For the record, we made no arrests,” said APD spokesperson Carlos Campos. “Our main goal in these initiatives is to help connect homeless individuals with the proper resources — be it housing assistance, mental health or substance abuse counseling, access to healthcare, etc. We want to focus on a long-term solution, rather than getting them to simply move.”

“We all have to recognize how politically sensitive this is in the city of Atlanta,” Sears said of officials avoiding a forceful pushing out of the campers.

“You don’t just run the bums out. … [They are people] who need and deserve the quality of care HOPE provides.”

Economic factors

Ronald Jones, HOPE’s director of homeless outreach, said in a written statement that of the many people his organization spoke to during the camp visits, only one requested assistance and was placed in a shelter. However, Jones said that low response rate is common, as it often takes several visits for someone to accept help with counseling, shelter and access to permanent housing. There are no shelters in the immediate area.

Economic factors mean that homelessness is a persistent issue in metro Atlanta, said HOPE spokesperson Beth Haynes.

“Most of us would be amazed to learn how many of the working poor find themselves episodically homeless,” Haynes said. “When a large percentage of the population is one paycheck away from eviction, you can see how it happens.”

Because of those factors, it is unlikely that all of the homeless campers will get into housing or remain away from the creeks for long. Maj. Brandon Gurley of the Brookhaven Police Department says he thinks the Atlanta effort is simply pushing homeless people to move a short distance into his city, where his department has similar crime concerns.

“We have seen an increase in our homeless population,” Gurley said. “Atlanta has taken some steps that have pushed them into our jurisdiction.”
Gurley said the Brookhaven Police work with the Salvation Army to assist homeless people. The Salvation Army has a local headquarters on Buford Highway, but does not have a shelter.

“We are trying to guide them to services,” Gurley said of local homeless people. “But some have said they are happy right there. We have to enforce our urban camping law … and try to get them to areas better suited for them.”

A city survey three years ago, conducted with DeKalb County officials, counted 35 to 40 homeless people living in Brookhaven.

Gurley suggested that Atlanta officials could have another motive for driving out homeless people: the Super Bowl the city is scheduled to host in February. Some Super Bowl host cities have drawn criticism in recent years for forcing homeless people off the streets to make the city look nicer for tourists and TV cameras. Other sporting events have had similar impacts, including Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics, where the city faced civil rights lawsuits for a crackdown on homeless people in public places.

Haynes said HOPE has “no information” about any such plan for this year’s Super Bowl, and Sears said she did not get the sense that was a motive.
Another factor in the area’s homeless population may be last year’s controversial closure of the Peachtree-Pine shelter downtown, where more than 200 men lived. Haynes said it is impossible to say where each person went, but that HOPE offered assistance to each Peachtree-Pine resident directly.

“The majority accepted the assistance, but there were some who refused help,” she said.

A persistent issue

Some of the local camps have persisted for years, Sears said. The largest camp she saw was beneath Buford Highway in “one of those wonderfully ambiguous locations” on the city line that can fall between jurisdictions, she said. She estimated it had roughly 80 to 100 people. She estimates about 50 people total in other camps that were visited. Those other sites include an area along the PATH400 multiuse trail at Miami Circle; the Cheshire Farm Trail around Cheshire Bridge and Lindbergh roads; and the Morningside Nature Preserve around a train trestle that notably caught fire last year, with some speculating that a camp’s fire was the cause.

Noting that a similar camp has existed off of I-20 west for more than two decades, despite similar outreach and crackdown efforts, Haynes said that economics and location may keep the local camps going.

“Atlanta is one of the most economically inequitable cities in the country,” Haynes said. “We have a severe shortage of affordable housing and have seen rents increase rapidly, but low-end wages remain stagnant … This creates a flow of people who become homeless due to a host of reasons — illness, job loss, escaping domestic violence, substance addiction, even a car breaking down. In sheer numbers, the metro area’s homeless numbers have decreased over the past decade but it is still significant.”

And wooded creeks have similar attractions for people who lose their homes as they do for people who like walking along trails.

“In some cases, [homeless people] are banding together in places that feel private, somewhat safer than the streets or under bridges, in order to create their own version of a community,” said Haynes. “If you had to choose, would you pick a creek bank or a freeway underpass?”

–John Ruch, Dyana Bagby and Evelyn Andrews

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.