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City of Atlanta to use part of Atlanta Medical Center campus as homeless shelter

The city of Atlanta has announced plans to use the former Athletic Club of the Atlanta Medical Center’s campus as a temporary emergency shelter as the city prepares to launch a new effort to clear out homeless people living under bridges.

In a one-sentence email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday night, a spokesman for Mayor Andre Dickens said the shelter would be used “as we continue to construct and identify longer-term housing solutions.” He did not tie the temporary shelter to the mayor’s plan to start clearing homeless encampments under bridges in coming weeks.

However, he also released a list of questions and answers about bridge encampments that he said was shared Thursday night with city council. The document says that the city, Partners for Home and the Gateway 24/7 Center are establishing a temporary emergency shelter “that will be offered to every unhoused individual under priority bridge locations.”

The document says outreach teams are “deploying now and working to engage and assess individuals seeking shelter under priority bridge locations.” It did not identify the encampments given priority. Those areas will start to close over the next week, it says. The removal operation will continue for six to eight weeks.

Signs are being posted on bridges notifying residents of the coming closures. On the day an area is shut down, outreach teams will help people load their belongings and take them to a temporary emergency shelter operated by Gateway Center, according to the list of frequently asked questions. Belongings will be condensed to a maximum of three bags and “remaining remnants will be removed and discarded.”

All of the individuals will be connected to a “housing navigator” who will work to link them to “permanent housing solutions” and other services, including medical care and employment, according to the document. Individuals will be offered shelter for up to 120 days or until they move into housing, it says.

The document notes that the city’s lead agency responding to homelessness Partners for Home has received funding to partner with service providers to find new shelter locations for people who are removed from the homeless camps. In January, Atlanta City Council authorized a $2.4 million donation to Partners for Home for such efforts.

The operation to clear out the encampments under bridges has raised questions about where unhoused people will end up after they are removed from their encampments. Some of those who are homeless have not heard of the new campaign to force them to move.

Kimberly Rose Tisby, in an interview beside her tent at a homeless encampment under a bridge downtown, said she hadn’t heard about any impending effort to make her move and wasn’t sure where she’d go if the area is cleared.

Mayor Dickens, in an interview last week with the AJC’s editorial board, said clearing the encampments was necessary because of the danger posed by fires that get out of control after unhoused people start them to cook or stay warm.

The city has for years known about the potentially devastating risks of bridge fires that begin in the camps, often sparked by fires used for cooking and warmth by people staying there.

After a blaze shutdown Cheshire Bridge Road in 2021, Dickens warned of the threat that encampments pose to the bridges. Eight months later, his prediction became a reality when another similar fire broke out near a tent site under Cheshire Bridge Road, damaging a bridge and closing the road.

Parts of Buford Highway have been shut down temporarily from smoke and fires. And in 2017, a blaze collapsed a raised portion of I-85 in the city.

The city’s plan to clear encampments will focus on 10 to 20 “priority” bridges, with a focus on those that are relatively low to the ground and therefore more susceptible to damage from flames, officials said. They have declined to identify the bridge locations.

A key part of the operation will be installing sturdy fencing so people can’t re-occupy the spaces after they’re cleared, Dickens told the AJC.

In 2022, Wellstar Health System closed Atlanta Medical Center, disrupting the city’s health care ecosystem and stretching the resources of Grady Memorial Hospital and other nearby facilities to absorb AMC’s patients.

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