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Inside the homeless encampment blamed for Cheshire Bridge fires

The people who live there and the people trying to help say they know the fires are frustrating– but say they're just the sign of a bigger problem in the city.

ATLANTA — Georgia Department of Transportation crews were out under a bridge on Cheshire Bridge Road all day– assessing the damage done by another fire on that same stretch of road.

Firefighters say three large fires in the last few months within a mile of each other have been caused by people living in a homeless encampment that’s grown massive in the last several months.

The people who live there call their community, "The Hill", and say at least 50 people are living up in the woods just off the highway.

The people who live there and the people trying to help say they know the fires are frustrating–  but say they're just the sign of a bigger problem in the city.

Tracy Thompson hikes up to the Hill every week.

She says she goes because it's a road she's walked as well when she was homeless in 2014.

"I said, I heard this was a shelter, can you help me? And they said no," she said of her experience trying to find help. 

She says it's complicated and frustrating to be homeless in Atlanta.

Tracy started the Elizabeth foundation to try and help people in Atlanta get connected to services that can lift them out of homelessness but she says there are a lot of barriers in place for people who live off the grid.

"They're doing a lot of mental health zoom services, but how do you get services if you don't have a phone? If you're not getting services, how do you get your medication? How do you become stabilized when you're homeless. How do you get to your appointments," she said. 

The City of Atlanta told 11Alive it works with a number of nonprofits to check in on encampments throughout the city and connect people to services.

"There's a lot of organizations that do a lot of good. But there's not enough of them. There's a lot more homeless and people in need than there are organizations to help," she said. 

But some people who live on The Hill said they live there because they want to–  like Brandon who says he's been homeless for 5 years.

"Even when I go home, I don't turn on the lights, I forget there are lights. Even though I know they're there, I don't use them, I carry around a flashlight everywhere," he said. 

He says he understands that people in the area are frustrated by the fires burning out of control–  he's frustrated too.

"The last one I know was down there by the bus stop, and I personally went down there and put it out, and someone went down there and set it on fire again," he said. 

He says sometimes people are burning the fires for warmth, sometimes it's to cook, and others are trying to get rid of the trash that's accumulated over the years.

"There's been news articles about how much garbage is on the hill. But let's find out why it's here. There are efforts to burn it because there are so many rats up here. They're eating through their tents, they're eating through their food, they don't want this garbage," Tracy said.

Tracy thinks the city should come to remove the trash at the homeless encampments throughout the city and that more people should show up to help.

"I never feel threatened in any of these encampments. I never feel fear. There are a lot of good people in these encampments going through a lot," she said. 

There have not been any arrests made in the four fires set on Cheshire Bridge since this summer including the ones that damaged the Peachtree Creek Bridge so badly it will have to be demolished.

Tracy doesn't think the fires were set maliciously, she says they were set by people trying to survive.

"If I can help one person walk through a complicated system, I've done something good. So that's what I do, one person at a time. And that's what we all can do," she said. 

The City of Atlanta told 11Alive it's working with a number of nonprofits to address the homeless situation in the area.

The Director of Community Engagement for Intown Collaborative Ministries, Katie Farmer, says they were able to make a real difference during the pandemic when the city got a federal CARES grant to provide low-cost housing at a hotel for people experiencing homelessness.

However, that money dried up in May and the hotel was closed.

She says it's difficult to see the progress they were making slow down again.

Typically, Intown works to house 100 people a year. Last year, they helped 221 clients move into permanent housing solutions. 

"So having access to that money was really spectacular and we knew that it was a limited amount of funding we were really proud of what we were able to do with a continuum of care headed up by partners for home," Farmer said. "But it was hard when suddenly that hotel closed, and that funding dried up and we had been telling people if you leave here you can move it to a hotel and then that solution closed and that answer changed. So we are hoping we can do it again. 

Farmer says they're working to get an American Recovery Plan grant with the city now but they don't know when that funding will come through.

Atlanta mayoral candidate Andre Dickens said Atlanta needs a housing-first model for homelessness. 

"What we need to do is a housing first model, really buy up the vacant motels in our city or just outside our city and get them up to a decent level where we can immediately place the homeless individuals in for 60-90 days so we can triage their situation," Dickens said. 

He added homeless individuals may be battling their mental health, addiction or could be escaping from domestic violence. 

"So what we have to do is give them a place where they can shower, have a bed and be fed. Then we can triage their situation and that would really help get our homeless situation down. We’d have to pay a little bit upfront," Dickens said.

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