By Michaela Kron
Brookhaven residents joined DeKalb County police officers, sanitation workers and community service workers from the DeKalb County Detention Center to conduct a cleanup of three homeless encampments May 20.
Operation Urban Camper, launched from Northeast Plaza on Buford Highway, covered the 1800 block of Briarwood Road near I-85, the 1800 block of Corporate Boulevard near Buford Highway and the 1400 block of North Cliff Valley Way behind Cross Keys High School. The operation came after years of complaints from residents and businesses about vagrancy in the areas.
The homeless people found in the three areas were given the option to ride in a van to the Atlanta Union Mission, a homeless shelter, or leave on their own. Police officers also conducted quick background checks in case any of the people had outstanding warrants.
A similar operation was conducted in February 2008, but the May 20 cleanup differed in one crucial way: Police officers issued criminal trespass warnings stating that if the same people were found in the areas after the sweep, they would be arrested.
For Kim Gokce, the president of the HillsDale Neighborhood Association and board member of the Brookhaven Community Connection, the cleanup was crucial to protecting the integrity of public property, particularly the area around Cross Keys.
“Vagrancy on school property is just not acceptable anywhere,” he said. “The community cares about Cross Keys, and for me, participating on a personal level is because of that interest, and it’s also to encourage others to take an interest in their communities.”
Gokce acknowledged that the homeless need help, and during the cleanup he provided everyone who chose to go to the Union Mission a package of toiletries, including deodorant and mouthwash, as well as hard candy for sugar levels and addiction problems.
According to the police officers involved in the operation, vagrancy poses various threats and disturbances — including thefts, burglaries and panhandling — to residents and businesses.
Maj. DeWayne Calhoun, the commander of the North Precinct of the DeKalb Police Department, said the quality of life for the homeless is a major concern.
“We don’t take them out to take them to jail. We take them out to try to get them to, in some way, reconstruct their lives,” Calhoun said. “This is not something to attack the homeless, but it is a quality-of-life issue for all those who live around the bridges.”
At each encampment, after the homeless were given a chance to gather their belongings, the sanitation and community service workers cleaned up the trash and debris.
The first target of the operation was Briarwood Road, next to the Hamptons at Lenox apartment complex, where three homeless people were found underneath the bridge in the 1800 block. Two were arrested on the spot for probation violations, and the third was taken to the Union Mission.
Melissa Ramirez, who was arrested for a probation violation related to a burglary case, said she expected the cleanup sooner or later.
“This isn’t exactly a place to live,” she said.
The operation continued on Corporate Boulevard, where nine people were discovered under a bridge in the 1800 block. They all declined to go to the Union Mission and left the area.
Brandy Brummett, who had lived under the bridge off and on for almost a year, said she viewed the cleanup as a somewhat positive measure.
“In a way, it’s a good thing because someone just got murdered,” she said, referring to the slaying of a homeless man in the area about two months ago. “You never know who might come under the bridge who ain’t got good sense.”
Brummett said she planned to enter the drug rehabilitation program at the Tempo Cabana apartment complex on Curtis Drive to seek help for her cocaine addiction.
The proximity of the homeless encampments to apartment complexes emerged as a point of concern.
Sara Monroy, the leasing manager at the Hamptons at Lenox, said homeless people cause various disturbances, including squatting in vacant apartments in the complex.
Tice Vieira, the regional manager of Huntington Management, who primarily oversees the Huntington Creek and Hamptons at Lenox complexes, said he was concerned about the impact of vagrancy on the apartments.
“We’re in the quality-of-life business,” he said. “If we’re not providing a decent quality of life for our residents in many different aspects — if they don’t feel like they can come home and lock their cars and feel safe — then they’re going to move.”
Vieira emphasized the importance of a close relationship between the community and the police.
“It’s absolutely critical for us to have involvement with the Police Department and to establish these kinds of bonds and so forth because at one time, before they made the sweep last year, it was pretty bad,” he said, noting that until last year 10 to 15 people lived under the bridge on Briarwood Road at any given time.
Brett Heilbron, the regional manager at the Park Towne North apartment complex on North Cliff Valley Way, agreed that a strong police-community bond is crucial and said that while such cleanups will not eliminate criminal activity, they can make a difference.
“Crime is always going to be here,” Heilbron said. “What we’re learning to do is how to manage it better, and programs like this have helped.”
Joshua Fritz, a DeKalb Interactive Community Policing (ICP) officer and the liaison officer for the operation, said police can act only if the community makes the department aware of issues.
“We can only do so much in the community by ourselves,” Fritz said. “We need the assistance from the community. We need people that actually care about the community and want to see it flourish.”
The operation concluded with the cleanup of an encampment in the 1400 block of North Cliff Valley Way in a wooded area behind Cross Keys, where one homeless man was found sleeping under a pile of garbage and debris. He was taken to the Union Mission.
Darryl McKoon, who lives across the street from the encampment, said he and most of his neighbors started having thefts a few months ago, and he believes that many can be attributed to the homeless in the area. He said someone smashed a window of his pickup truck and stole the radio inside, causing $1,000 worth of damage.
McKoon also is concerned about the presence of the homeless on the Cross Keys property. “I’ve complained several times to the school department about this piece of property, and they’re not very cooperative at all.”
Despite the cleanup of the homeless encampments, McKoon was dissatisfied that the homeless were not immediately arrested for trespassing.
“I don’t feel good,” he said. “I want this guy arrested. I want him to go to jail. I don’t get warnings when I make a mistake.”
Still, ICP Officer Daryl Yarbro said the cleanup is beneficial.
“If it’s maintained, I think the problem will be cleared up,” Yarbro said. “Every effort makes a difference. You gotta keep sweeping the floor.”