The 5 a.m. joint effort between the city, the United Way of Metro Atlanta, and the Georgia Building Authority at downtown's Georgia Plaza Park was necessary because the encampment had become a "public health" issue, said Col. Mark McDonough, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, which led the effort.
Since late-October, as many as 50 men and women have congregated and camped along the ledge within view of the Fulton County Courthouse and City Hall just one block from the Gold Dome. The number of people who'd flocked to the area because of its proximity to resource providers and visibility had grown so large it'd even earned a nickname from local homeless advocates: "the ledge people."
"These are our most disadvantaged citizens that we have," said Col. Mark McDonough, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, which oversaw the effort. "We wanted to try and address this in a systematic compassionate way and help. We weren't going to just come in here without solutions and move people out. Trying to get these folks the assistance they need is the right thing."
He added: "The Georgia Building Authority" — the state agency which maintains the state-owned park between Washington and Central avenues — "has had to a have a feces patrol. It's really become a clean-up issue for everyone's health and safety. We're trying to do what's best with these folks and the general citizenry as a whole."
When CL arrived at the plaza this morning shortly after 5 a.m., an estimated 40 men and women were picking up their blankets, bags, and clothes off the ledge and directed toward the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, a nearby nonprofit service provider for the homeless, where United Way of Metro Atlanta workers planned to offer assistance to people who wanted to move into supportive housing. State police oversaw the effort. According to McDonough, the removal was conducted before sunrise so crews could work without worrying about heavy pedestrian activity and traffic.
Many men and women left behind rain-soaked blankets, sleeping bags, cardboard, and other items, which a clean-up crew quickly collected in oversized bags and tossed into four waiting pick-up trucks.
For the last several weeks, the city, state, and homeless resource providers including the United Way and COAC, have discussed how to deal with the homeless situation around the park. But those same resource providers who must now do the heavy lifting of finding people a place to stay said they were only told yesterday afternoon that the removal would take place this morning. Was that enough time to prepare?
"No," said Kimberly Parker, outreach director at the COAC. "We'd been told we had a couple of weeks because we had a meeting last week with officials from around. And the agreement was we'd meet again after we'd partnered together and figured out some type of solution. Then we got word late yesterday afternoon that this would take place this morning."
Said Phil Hunter, the United Way's director of homelessness, who stresses that the agency takes no position on the city or state's response but simply wants to help the men and women living on the ledge: "In some of the meetings there was mention that there'd be more time made available. Privy to this right here happening, we knew this was a possibility. But there was talk of more time."
Hunter, who was also informed yesterday afternoon of the removal effort, said his team was prepared, he said, because United Way has increased its activities in the area over the last several weeks. They've already placed 35 people who once slept along the ledge into supportive housing. He said there's not enough space available for everyone removed today, but that partner agencies would also offer help.
"Hopefully we will help another 10 to 12 people today," he said.
Some of the homeless who'd lived along the ledge, including David, whom CL first interviewed when rumors of a removal effort were first floated in mid-November, said the homeless were told on Monday that they'd be given all day Wednesday to clear out. By 5:45 this morning, however, nearly all items left on the ledge had been removed.
"We knew it was coming to an end," Dave told us as he carried his belongings toward the outreach center and fighting back tears. "But we don't have anywhere to go."
We're still working on tying up some loose ends on the story and will update when we hear more. Here are more photos of the removal effort from CL Photographer Joeff Davis.
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