Part Three: Formerly Homeless People Ask Questions of Atlanta Mayoral Candidates

Stanley Wilson struggled with addiction since he was 15 years old. Over the years I developed depression and mental illness and couldn’t keep a job and the shelters did not work out for me and sleeping on the street became easier. A social worker at First Presbyterian Church encouraged me to try permanent supportive housing. She said I would not have to deal with my alcoholism. I was accepted into supportive housing and a program that worked for me. I finally got clean on my own and I’ve been sober for 3 1/2 years. It took time and people who genuinely cared about me. The Housing First program let me get sober under my own roof, and on my own time, and on my own terms. 

QUESTION:  Do you have a plan to make shelters more open to people suffering from addiction and to create more supportive housing that doesn’t require sobriety before you can have a home?

Andre Dickens –  Wison mentioned the number of organizations that were available for help but had barriers, and conditions on how they give help. We have to have low barrier housing first solutions and that is what saved you. It’s hard to help someone still living on the streets to get off of drugs. You have to get someone a clean, dry place to live, food, and the supportive care that you need and that’s why the Continuum of Care, Partners for Homes, and PAD programs all work together.  

Churches need to coordinate intake and whatever door you walk through can be able to say this individual needs this type of care and these are the people that can provide it for him. We are getting better at that with technology. We need to continue to fund what we have already started. The county is supposed to help with health issues.

Antonio Brown – I can relate to this because my family was homeless off and on when I was young. 

I think the City of Atlanta in partnership with Fulton County needs to take accountability for the unsheltered population and address mental health and substance abuse. If you are living on the street and struggling with mental illness or substance abuse there may not be a bed available after 7 pm or the barriers for entry are too high. They require a TB test and some form of ID, but many unsheltered people don’t have an ID facing these barriers. 

Many of the unsheltered don’t trust the current system, don’t trust the shelters, and would rather sleep on the streets and we have to rebuild that trust.

As mayor, I will establish 400 emergency beds with low barriers for entry and create a municipal ID program where we can track everyone and understand their issues and get them into care services.

Felicia Moore – I want to talk about the barriers to the shelters. We had a no-barrier shelter called Peachtree and Pine. When the city wanted to close it, I wanted to know where are you going to find another 800-bed no-barrier place to put all these folks that have mental health and addiction problems. That plan never came, so I was the only no-vote for the closing of the shelter. Still today we don’t have any no barrier shelters. We have to have someplace where people who don’t follow all the rules or check all the boxes can safely get off the streets, especially in cold winter months. I believe that housing is grounding and helps individuals to heal free of being outside in the elements trying to survive. 

Kasim Reed – We did have a plan for Peachtree & Pine. It was the homeless opportunity bond that will fund 551 units of housing. It is discourteous and disrespectful to all the people who worked on the Continuum of Care and Partners for Home to say we closed P&P without a plan.

I believe in a scattered site approach. I believe the future for the homeless in Atlanta is units that will house 20 to 50 folks and have all of the services around that facility or in that community. We need to acquire units and houses that can house up to 50 people and it doesn’t have to be in Atlanta city limits.

Felicia Moore – My comment was related to whether those 800 beds will be replaced with 800 beds of no barrier sheltering.

Kasim Reed – There was a plan to acquire scattered-site housing in small size units throughout the city.

Felicia Moore – The plan has not been executed.

The issue of no barrier shelters discussed between Ms. Moore and Mr. Reed requires more explanation since the forced closing of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless at Peachtree and Pine (P&P) was so controversial. In 2016, then-Mayor Kasim Reed used eminent domain to close the no barrier shelter with plans to convert it into a police and fire facility to respond to terrorism. Over five years later the building is boarded up and empty.

There was an effort to house the homeless that were evicted from P&P but not sure how successful that endeavor was because P&P had all the people other shelters did not want. After the closing of P&P, homeless advocates noticed the streets were flooded with homeless people sleeping everywhere, especially under the many interstate bridges where they could be out of the rain. Atlanta still does not have a no-barrier shelter where people with addictions and mental health problems can stay.

 “I do outreach and we have people sleeping in the streets and homeless camps and abandoned houses all around Atlanta. How are you going to throw (800 to 1,000) people out of the largest shelter in town when you can’t even house the ones sleeping in the streets now?  Where are you going to put these poor folks that have been refused shelter in all the other facilities in town because of their mental health or addiction problems,” Marshall Rancifer, a formerly homeless man and founder of Justice for All Coalition asked the Atlanta City Council, as reported in Atlanta Progressive News on October 2016

Sharon Gay – I don’t think shelters are the answer for the mentally ill or addicts. The Imperial hotel I think is a much better example of how we can bring people with mental and drug problems to greater stability. We need transitional and supportive housing with services, and we need to partner with the county because they are the ones who have the social service for mental health and addiction. If a person has stable housing, then they can focus on their health and getting better. 

Matthew Reed- I have spent the last 20 years doing research and outreach with unsheltered neighbors. During the COVID pandemic, the city received access to federal funds that allowed Partners for Homes and other local agencies to work together to implement a housing search using a local hotel for people to stay while they were connected to an apartment. 

We brought private and public sectors together and offered over 650 people a quicker path to housing. However, I noticed an erosion of safety nets for our sickest and most vulnerable citizens like those experiencing chronic homelessness and severe mental illness. 

The city has not had the best track record of partnering with other public organizations but we know that housing is only possible as a result of those partnerships 

QUESTION: As mayor how will you partner with city, country, federal, and state agencies to leverage and align resources to increase housing development?

Antonio Brown – I would remove the Office of Housing and Community Development from under the Office of Planning and have it as a separate entity. I would reestablish the position of Chief Housing Officer and that officer will act as a liaison working directly with our community partners and organizations to ensure we have a master plan when it comes to affordable housing and low barrier housing. 

I would remove Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) from under the Administration of the Department of Grants Management and into this Office of Housing and Community Development and have a finance officer to ensure we are addressing the program effectively and efficiently.  

The city has got to start paying its bills. We are not paying providers on time, people are being displaced and the unsheltered population is growing. 

Felicia Moore – We’ve got to work with Fulton County, they have the Health and Human Services and they need to be a part of every conversation and at the table 

People who do outreach who know people on the street personally and serve them every day with food, clothing, and supplies, need to be part of the conversation and at the table. They are not part of the Continuum of Care and they don’t get the money to help support what they do for the unsheltered.

I have had conversations with Cathryn Marchman about opening up opportunities for others who are working with the unsheltered in the street to be part of the solutions and to hear their voices and be part of the Continuum of Care and what they do.

Kasim Reed –  I will be collaborating more this time with committed organizations and the stakeholders. People want to be able to walk in a room with a person that can make a decision and move the needle. Fulton County is aligned and has a deep interest in this issue. The state of Georgia understands that we’ve got to do a better job on homelessness. I want to talk directly with working groups that have been effective in changing things in Atlanta.

Sharon Gay –  I think this issue calls out for servant leadership. You need the leadership skills and the experience to organize the government to be effectively working with all these private and nonprofit partners with governmental partners efficiently and effectively. You organize a system to remove the barriers, increase resources, adapt, as needed, so you don’t have people fall through the cracks because of insufficient coordination. 

Andre Dickens –  We need a mayor that is hands-on and that listens and is attentive to the needs and the information that’s coming in from various sources and to coordinate all the information coming in from all these groups and organizations.

We will have a Chief Housing Officer in the Mayor’s office and a Chief Health Officer to provide the services that people need. 

QUESTION: What would be your number one priority if elected mayor?

Andre Dickens –  I will commit to having a team of people that works with Partners for Home and with PAD and together we will solve these issues.  Increase our funding to be able to be a  24 /7 organization to help PAD divert people away from the police and arrest as it relates to homelessness. 

My commitment is that our affordable housing starts at 0% AMI.  Housing first for individuals that are experiencing homelessness.

Sharon Gay – My commitment would be to increase the supply of supportive and transitional housing and some of that is zoning changes. I would reach out to the faith community for use of land that churches, synagogues, and mosques own and look at city land that can be used and break down some of the regulatory barriers of not in my backyard. 

Kasim Reed – I’m going to do it bigger, faster, and bolder this time. I’m going to take 2 million dollars and put it in the city’s budget and it’s going to be a reoccurring obligation. We’re going to tie a fee in the City of Atlanta to give recurring revenue for the homeless efforts to the construction market which in my last year as Mayor was 5 billion dollars. 

We’re going to acquire scattered-site housing throughout the region, not just in Atlanta. We’re going to buy hotels and motels and put service around them and make them blend into the community just like the Imperial Hotel blends.

Felicia Moore – As mayor, I want to make sure everyone is heard and help those doing outreach on the street find their way to the table and make sure their voices are heard.

We need to get the barriers lowered to many of our shelters and other facilities. 

For those that are not ready to go into a shelter, we need to find a place for them to go. We will build affordable housing on city property and we can control where those units go, and we will have units for rapid rehousing. As Mayor, I will be an active, committed advocate for the unsheltered to get the job done. 

Antonio Brown – I’m going to establish 400 emergency beds because that is our first line of defense where they can receive immediate care for their mental health and addiction issues.  We will partner with Mercy Care, expand PAD, and create a 24/7 service for the unsheltered.

Written and photo by Gloria Tatum

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