On a triangle of land in the shadow of Sandy Springs’ $220 million City Springs project, there were recent signs of homeless people taking refuge. On an afternoon last month, a sleeping bag and containers of personal belongings were stashed in an unlocked room of a vacant auto shop, and similar bags were found around the triangle.

Reports have circulated in recent months about apparently homeless people sheltering in vacant houses or public parks in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. But police officials and a social service organization say those reports are not signs of an overall increase in local homelessness.

A recently demolished house on Hilderbrand Drive in Sandy Springs was previously entered by homeless people who left a note asking if they could stay the winter, according to police and a former owner. (John Ruch)

On the evening of April 16, Dunwoody police arrested a man for “urban camping” in the city’s Park at Pernoshal Court. Urban camping laws, which prohibit public outdoor sleeping, have a history of legal controversy for criminalizing homelessness. The man arrested in the park gave as his address the headquarters of Crossroads Community Ministries, a social service organization for homeless people located in downtown Atlanta.

“We served over 4,000 individuals this past year, so I’m not surprised to hear that [the man] gave our address,” said Tony Johns, Crossroads’ executive director.

Johns said there are many reasons a homeless person from downtown might go outside the Perimeter: access to a particular service; lack of shelter space; better public safety; a search for a job; along with the many other reasons anyone, housed or not, might travel. Johns said that “certain segments of the homeless population are very transient, especially youth or those who are chronically homeless.

But, he added, Atlanta’s overall homeless population is shrinking, and it is unlikely that significant numbers of homeless people are being displaced into the Dunwoody or Sandy Springs area.

“Based on our annual point-in-time count of those experiencing homelessness in the city of Atlanta, the population has decreased every year for the past five years,” Johns said. “At the same time, the volume of services and access to those services has increased.”

Crossroads’ annual count includes people on the street as well as those in shelters and in transitional or supportive housing for the recently homeless. The 2016 count found around 4,200 “were experiencing homelessness on a given day,” John said.

“We do not have accurate counts for the total number of individuals who experienced homelessness at some point during the year, but we estimate it at 23,000,” he added.

Local homeless population numbers are harder to come by. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs produces an annual county-level count that includes a formula for educated guessing. Its latest available count, for 2015, estimated a homeless population of 684 for all of DeKalb County and 473 for all of Fulton County, outside the city of Atlanta borders.

Atlanta’s shelter space is at capacity, but getting closer to meeting the need, Johns said. And while some people have been displaced from affordable housing “due to gentrification,” he said, they have mostly gone to the southern metro area.

The Sandy Springs and Dunwoody areas have local and county-wide agencies and nonprofits that provide some assistance to homeless people, but not shelter space. For people living on the street, the police may be a first point of contact.

The Atlanta Hawks recently honored several Dunwoody police officers for helping three homeless people last year by chipping in for a bus ticket and soliciting clothing via social media. But the department doesn’t track its encounters with homeless people, according to Officer Mark Stevens.

“We do not keep statistics on whether a person is homeless,” Stevens said, “so I am unable to state whether these interactions have increased, decreased or stayed the same.”

In Sandy Springs, officials and residents have reported homeless people attempting to enter city-owned vacant homes on Hammond Drive. The former owner of a condemned house on Hilderbrand Drive, which was recently demolished after a long bank dispute, previously said homeless people last year left him a note asking if they could spend the winter there.
Sandy Springs Deputy Police Chief Keith Zgonc said he sees no sign of increased encounters with homeless people in department reports.

“The only place I know we had a problem was that house on Hilderbrand that was recently demolished,” he said. “We did have a pair of homeless in that place. We do have homeless here in the city, but I do not think we have seen much of an increase.”

The city recently purchased the triangle across from City Springs. The vacant buildings there will be demolished by June to make way for a park and a roundabout project, the city’s public facilities manager recently reported to City Council. The buildings are now secured and will be checked regularly, a city spokesperson said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.