Since March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has added a new set of challenges for unsheltered populations as cities across the nation respond to an increasing need to keep its citizens healthy and safe. Throughout this time, there has been an influx of assistance and resources to help transition homeless populations to housing — a process that includes transitioning households from encampments to shelter that can keep them safe and minimize additional health risks. While we are grateful for the strides made during the pandemic, we’ve learned there are many misconceptions about the recent encampments closing in and around the City of Atlanta.

We all may remember the fire that collapsed a bridge on Interstate 85 in March 2017. Although no one was injured, the incident resulted in $15 million of damages and three individuals arrested in connection with the fire. It remains unclear whether they lived under or near the bridge, but highlighted a need to implement safety measures around the City that would prevent injury to its citizens and minimize unexpected costs to infrastructure.

As advocates of individuals and families experiencing homelessness, Partners for HOME took the lead on ensuring safety measures did not negatively disrupt the lives of those who reside under bridges and in encampments. While outreach to unsheltered residents has been a regular part of many local nonprofit activities, our collaboration with the City of Atlanta and Georgia Department of Transportation has required a strategic approach to relocating unsheltered residents, especially those residing in encampments throughout Atlanta.

“Our post-COVID concentration on housing those residing in encampments started around October 2020,” says Melissa Austin, chief operating officer for Partners for HOME. “We’ve partnered with outreach teams to help talk to residents and transition them to alternative housing options” she continues. These teams include dedicated specialists from Intown Collaborative Ministries, Gateway Center, HOPE Atlanta, Step Up on Second, the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services and Atlanta Police Department’s HOPE Team. In addition to outreach, teams conduct Coordinated Entry assessments and help residents become document ready so they can move into housing.

As a point of clarification, encampments are not closed without having an alternative for its current residents. “One of the biggest questions we get asked is where do residents go when an encampment is closed,” says Danny Lester-Drew, deputy director of programs and policy at Partners for HOME. With the adoption of a non-congregate hotel, Partners for HOME has been able to close five encampments post-COVID, moving nearly 215 encampment residents to the hotel or alternative shelters. For those who decline to move — which totals less than 20 during the pandemic — arrangements are made to move to other agreed upon locations, with ongoing case management to ensure they have access to necessary resources and services. “Our work to end homelessness is an ongoing process that puts residents first,“ adds Lester-Drew.

Once encampments are closed, the Georgia Department of Transportation initiates a clean up process, removing all debris leftover in areas and implementing measures to prevent future assemblage. “We are on a mission to end homelessness in the City of Atlanta,” states Cathryn Marchman, chief executive officer of Partners for HOME. “This means you may find fewer people residing in encampments across the City. As we move them into shelter and permanent housing options, the need for, and visibility of, “tent cities” will become less and less,” Marchman continues.

With the success of five encampment closures, Partners for HOME and its collaborators look forward to the future and helping more households find a permanent home of their own. In early 2021, three more encampment closures are planned, with outreach teams currently on the ground and working with residents to transition to the hotel or identify alternative shelter options. “The pandemic has presented its own set of challenges, but also opportunities to be more strategic in how we work to end homelessness and minimize the spread of the coronavirus, “ states Marchman. “We’re fortunate to have so many individuals and organizations at the table to help navigate this process and provide solutions for our vulnerable residents.”