ATLANTA — Atlanta Police and city crews are in the process of clearing out some homeless encampments Thursday.
Residents said that it seems like encampments in Midtown and Buckhead have doubled or even tripled in size over the last several months.
Bulldozer tracks show a clear path where just shoes, clothes and shopping carts remain from the encampment. Atlanta Police and the Department of Public Works led the charge to clear out sites at the Buford Springs Connector, just off Sidney Marcus Boulevard. Crews also cleared a larger encampment behind The Dump and the Post Office near Sidney Marcus Boulevard. One person laid down across the street after the scene unfolded.
Richard Lawson said he knows the experience well. He was homeless about three years ago, and he said the uncertainty of doing tasks to just survive was the toughest challenge for those experiencing homelessness.
"Either they get thrown away, or other homeless people come and get them. It's like a dog-eat-dog world out here," Lawson said.
Lawson said simple tasks are all he thought about when he was homeless.
"Taking a shower, eating food without stealing it," he said.
Lawson said it's tough to start over again every couple of months.
"You just have to restart, rebuild," Lawson said. "You really can’t think about it too hard because there’s a lot of stuff mentally that you’re going through. You just have to fend for yourself, fend for your life.”
He added that if he can get help, so can others.
Denice Wade said she also was homeless and now works as an outreach caseworker with In Town Collaborative Ministries, helping those who are homeless find a permanent home with few resources available.
"They ask the people to move on, and usually they take their stuff and they trash it," Wade said. “When your whole livelihood and everything you have is taken out from under you, and you have to scramble and figure out where to go, it makes it really hard for them. My heart feels for them."
She said crews typically clear out encampments every couple of months.
Her colleague Brad Schweers said despite progress made in the last year, police have to build more trust, coordination has to improve with homeless outreach teams and the city has to provide more affordable housing.
"Homelessness seems to be, at the least, at the same level, if not increasing, since the beginning of the pandemic," Brad Schweers, executive director of In Town Ministries said. "But the city has housed more people in the last year than in any other year that we’ve operated. We need better coordination to do that with homeless outreach teams so we can work, hopefully, several months ahead of time so we can connect with people, find out what people’s needs are.”
Wade added that ending homelessness is a joint effort, and everyone in the community should help.
APD's Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team has been at the encampment to provide resource opportunities. APD said members of the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD) went to the encampment Wednesday to also offer substance use and mental health support services.
APD added that the outreach and cleanup efforts are "not in response to any fires caused near or at the location."
Last week, state police were called in to clear out gatherings of homeless people near the State Capitol and Fulton County Courthouse. Police said there was a public safety concern with having so many people gathered in one spot.
Back in November, a homeless encampment sparked a fire underneath the bridge near the Buford connector. A resident who lives nearby said he has seen several fires in the area.
"Since I've been here, there have been at least five, but I'm sure it's more. It tends to be garbage or tents burning," he said.
Additionally, a homeless encampment called "The Hill" has also been blamed for several fires in the Cheshire Bridge Road area. Last year, firefighters said three large fires occurred over the span of a few months within a mile of each other. Officials said it was due to the homeless encampment that had grown to at least 50 people living in the woods just off the highway.
"The city is only going to do so much," Lawson said. "It’s up to the people, and if they don’t have any other options to go anywhere, they’re going to come back."