Atlanta’s population of people experiencing homelessness took a nosedive during the pandemic, city officials claimed last week, as they announced the city will spend $25.6 million in federal pandemic relief and state funds on services for people living in shelters and on the streets. But might they be underestimating the scope of the problem?

Partners for HOME, the city’s homeless services arm, counted just 2,017 people on Atlanta’s streets in its 2022 Point in Time census—an annual count taken over one night in January that is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That was a 37% drop from the 3,240 unhoused people the nonprofit tallied in 2020. The group did not take a census in 2021, due to the pandemic.

Partners for HOME CEO Cathryn Vassell credited the city’s HomeFirst and LIFT initiatives, which offer supportive housing and other recovery services, with the sharp decline in homelessness, but she acknowledged during a June 2 press conference that the reduction might not be apparent to many Atlantans.

“Visibility has increased quite dramatically,” she said, explaining that the pandemic reduced the number of people overall out in public, which prompted many unhoused people to come out into the open and establish living arrangements in areas once known as pedestrian hotspots.

But Marshall Rancifer, the founder and head of homeless outreach organization Justice For All Coalition, said he suspects Atlanta is undercounting its homeless population, since it’s difficult to locate many encampments and keep track of homeless people’s movements. 

Unless Partners for HOME is alerted to specific campsites, the Point in Time count could miss people living in secluded wooded areas or abandoned buildings. Some of these places could hold dozens of unsheltered people, Rancifer said.

The Point in Time effort also overlooks people living in extended-stay motels “because that’s the only thing they can afford to get into,” he added. “Since when did a hotel become a home?”

A homeless encampment in the woods. (Credit: Marshall Rancifer)

The city is allocating $12.9 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds and $12.7 million in state dollars to programs like the HomeFirst and LIFT initiatives and to help purchase hotels to use for supportive housing, Mayor Andre Dickens said at the press conference.

Partners for HOME’s 2022 Point in Time report found that 37% of Atlantans experiencing homelessness reported mental illness and 32% reported substance use disorder.

Dickens also highlighted external factors that have kept them from finding stable housing. The scarcity of affordable housing in Atlanta makes it even more difficult to find a home, the mayor said, especially as real estate investors purchase single-family homes in underserved but fast-evolving communities and turn them into high-priced rental units. 

“Investors from Wall Street and other places have found Atlanta and other metropolitan areas to be ripe for the picking,” Dickens said. 

So-called “institutional investors” or “corporate landlords” accounted for more than 40% of the single-family home purchases in metro Atlanta in the third quarter of 2021, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice executive director Michael Waller told Atlanta Civic Circle in February.

Mayor Andre Dickens, flanked by city officials, during a June 2 press conference. (Credit: Sean Keenan)

Dickens said that he’s talking with federal officials about predatory investment concerns and to advocate for “how banks should be regulated and how they spend [money] in communities.” 

Cracking down on what many consider predatory investments could play a crucial role in fulfilling Dickens’ campaign promise of building and restoring 20,000 affordable housing units over the next eight years, he said. 

Meanwhile, Partners for HOME, which the city created in 2013, is developing its next five-year plan to reduce homelessness, which will include forming public-private partnerships to create permanent supportive housing options. The agency expects to present the plan to the public in November.

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