Two recent fires underneath bridges allegedly set by homeless people has raised fears among service agencies of official crackdowns. But the reaction is not as bad as one expert thought it would be.
“It’s actually been a lot more mild than you would expect,” said Jasper Preston, program coordinator at the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness.
The location of the fires also underscore the lack of shelters in areas like Brookhaven and Buckhead.
David Villa, who is homeless and lives under the Corporate Boulevard bridge along Peachtree Creek in Brookhaven, said on a recent morning that he recently arrived here from Waco, Texas.
“During the day, I go on Buford Highway looking for work. Nothing yet,” Villa said.
He said he recently fell and injured his leg. “I have no family and friends here, but I am trying to get on my feet,” he said.
The public is more educated on homelessness than they have been in the past and are more empathetic, Preston said, adding that “the first thing we have to recognize is these are just humans who can’t afford a home.”
The fire and resulting collapse at an I-85 overpass in Buckhead on March 30 drew national media attention. Basil Eleby, who is homeless, has been charged with setting that fire.
A question on the issue of homelessness was asked of GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry at an April 4 press conference updating the media on I-85 reconstruction. McMurry responded that “homelessness is a social issue that deserves bigger conversation.”
A couple weeks later, on April 17, the possessions of a homeless person living underneath a Buford Highway bridge in Brookhaven caught fire, according to officials. Investigators determined no significant damage was done to the bridge and it was reopened two hours after the fire began.
The Brookhaven Police Department reported on its Facebook page the “fire started in the mattress of a homeless person who sought shelter under the bridge” and added “there is no indication this fire was intentional.”
Although the public is responding less negatively than Preston anticipated, he still expects stricter enforcement of laws involving the homeless. “It will probably bring a crackdown simply because there is public concern,” he said.
There is a stigma around going to homeless shelters, Preston said, so some homeless people avoid them. Instead, they seek shelter under bridges or move to other areas perceived to be safer.
Buckhead is one of those areas, Preston said. But the neighborhood has no shelters, though the Buckhead Christian Ministry on Piedmont Road offers assistance to homeless people.
Preston said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the homeless population migrate toward Cobb County, as the construction of SunTrust Park and the surrounding developments may mean the area will be viewed as a safer place for homeless people.
There are already more homeless people than shelter space in the city of Atlanta. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs put the number of shelter spaces at 3,906 in 2015. The same year, the number of homeless people was estimated to be 4,317.
–Phil Mosier contributed