Mechanicsville resident Maurice Killing has been living on the streets for about three years, a reality he wants and expects Atlanta leaders to help him change in the near future.
“I’m just hoping I can get another place to stay,” Killing said Friday while sitting in a lawn chair outside the tent city near Cooper Street where he and dozens of other homeless people reside.
Killing, 50, said he’s a former Stone Mountain Construction employee who lost his job and his apartment in 2020 after catching COVID-19 and falling behind on rent. He said he is looking forward to participating in one of Mayor Andre Dickens’ housing initiatives to combat homelessness.
It’s been nearly a year since Dickens’ office unveiled its LIFT 2.0 housing program, and officials recently visited the Cooper Street tent city to help residents sign up. In August, the mayor announced a new rapid housing initiative, which involves transforming shipping containers into “a cost-effective and innovative housing option” for Atlanta’s growing population of people experiencing homelessness.
The dwellings will be located on a publicly owned site on Forsyth Street downtown, near the Garnett MARTA station. Housing design plans for a second site on Cooper Street in Mechanicsville have not been finalized.
Atlanta City Council set aside $4 million last month to fund phase one of the program. The city also plans to provide aid to program participants, including help obtaining identification documents, connections with mental health services and substance abuse treatment.
The housing is free for those with no income. Those with financial means would be required to pay no more than 30% of their income to stay in one of the dwellings, according to Cathryn Vassell, CEO of Partners for HOME, the nonprofit tasked with managing the sites.
Partners for HOME, formed in 2015 to help reduce homelessness in the metro area, also conducts the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency’s annual Point-In-Time homelessness census in Atlanta. The most recent count, conducted in January, found a 33% year-over-year rise in the number of homeless people living in shelters or sleeping on the streets.
Nearly 83% of those counted were Black, according to the report. And the majority are single Black men like Killing, according to Vassell.
Lack of affordable housing is a primary driver of the homelessness her organization encounters, Vassell said. In addition, she said the organization believes that the growing effect of gentrification “will lead to a direct causal impact or increase in the number of people who are homeless.”
Providing permanent supportive housing — low-cost units often run by nonprofits to aid those who would otherwise be homeless — has been an effective solution to the problem. A University of California, San Francisco study released in 2020 found that 86% of participants in a local permanent supportive housing program remained housed for several years.
A UCLA report published the following year found supportive housing also reduced participants’ probability of committing a crime by 80% and increased reported employment likelihood by 24 percentage points over the course of 18 months, in addition to diminishing the chance of returning to the local homeless support system.
“There is a plethora of data out there that supports the efficacy of permanent supportive housing,” Vassell said.
But the mayor’s plan to build housing for homeless people in Mechanicsville is receiving backlash from Black residents who say the city is concentrating a disproportionate amount of aid for unhoused people in Black neighborhoods, raising concerns about safety and quality of life for existing residents.
About 90% of Mechanicsville residents are Black. Dozens of them confronted representatives from the mayor’s office about the rapid housing plan during an Aug. 30 informational meeting at the Dunbar Neighborhood Center.
Mechanicsville resident Renee Giles said Atlanta officials previously tried to move a downtown homeless encampment into her neighborhood when the city was building Centennial Olympic Park about 30 years ago.
“There’s been tons of homeless people in those areas, and what we see is those people have been pushed south of [Interstate 20],” she said. “This is an issue between Black and white and the haves and have-nots. It’s not fair that the city is trying to push this down our throat. We are saying ‘No’ to this.”
Local attorney Diana Lynch questioned why the city isn’t building housing for homeless people in wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods, such as Inman Park and Buckhead. She and others suggested the concentration of public aid programs and services for low-income people in neighborhoods like Mechanicsville leads to an increased rate of poverty and crime that discourages businesses from investing and creating jobs in the Black communities.
“They continue to overly burden our minority communities with these kinds of establishments,” Lynch said. “Why are we a retail desert? Why do we have to go to some other community to be able to find resources and stores, a box of sugar or milk? Because they will not make a commitment to a community where they do not have the market share to be able to make a profit. It’s just business.”
Community advocate Deborah Arnold said homeless people congregate and wander around the neighborhood. She said she’d support the Cooper Street rapid housing program if the city provides them with other services as well. She expressed particular concerns about crime and noted one woman tried to enter her home with lighter fluid and a match about two months ago.
Arnold said she suspects the woman was suffering from a mental illness. Last year, 21% of homeless people in the U.S. reported having a serious mental illness, according to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, which also notes homeless people are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime.
“When a homeless person [does] not have what they need, they will wander around and they will get it,” Arnold said.
Sharing the responsibility
Vassell, who attended the meeting, tried to clarify that the city isn’t looking to build another homeless shelter in Mechanicsville. She said other supportive housing communities have been built in more affluent, majority-white neighborhoods.
Kirkwood, for example, has the Presley Woods affordable housing complex, run by the homeless aid group known as 3Keys. The neighborhood has a 58% white population and an annual median household income of nearly $116,000, according to Niche.com.
Atlanta Mission and 3Keys are two of more than 160 aid groups affiliated with Partners for HOME.
“We’re not singling out Mechanicsville,” Vassell said. “We are working in many other neighborhoods across the city and have invested, now, almost $22 million to that end.”
After the meeting, City Council member Jason Dozier said he still intends to support the mayor’s proposal, despite resistance from his constituents in Mechanicsville.
“I support the vision,” Dozier said. “I just want to make sure the implementation is something that meets the needs and is responsive to the concerns of the community.”
Dozier’s support may be appreciated by unhoused Mechanicsville residents like Ebony Rose, 31, who has been living on the streets for the past five years and says she hopes the rapid housing program will help her get back on her feet.
“I’d be able to focus better,” Rose said. “I’d be able to have family over. I’d be able to not freeze to death. … There’s a lot of benefits that come with having a roof.”
Homeless Mechanicsville resident Carlos Bradley suggested people opposed to the rapid housing program should have more empathy for those in need, as many in the city struggle to pay their rent. Evictions in the Atlanta metro area have soared over the summer.
“A lot of people are just a check away from being out here,” he said.
Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!