Atlanta Moves 250 People Without Shelter Into Hotel To Protect From COVID-19 Virus

Robert Ray / Associated Press

An Atlanta hotel reserved for the homeless during the coronavirus outbreak is now at capacity.

The city bought 250 rooms for those most vulnerable to the virus. To be eligible, people had to be older than 65 or dealing with underlying health conditions.

Homeless service providers identified people who would qualify during outreach at encampments, parks and the airport. The teams could offer hotel rooms the same day.

The month-long rehousing effort was the largest that advocates said they’d seen in the city, at least since the 2017 closing of the Midtown homeless shelter Peachtree-Pine.

Cathryn Marchman, who leads Partners For Home and directs the city’s homelessness strategy, said the cost of hotel rooms for short-term housing likely would be too high were it not for the pandemic.

“Getting people to a safe place to isolate and be out of danger from the virus is, of course, a no-brainer,” she said.

The city is paying $3 million, half in emergency funding and half in philanthropic dollars, to cover the hotel rooms for three months until August 1. It’s possible that timeframe could be extended.

The city also secured space at another downtown hotel, donated during the COVID-19 outbreak, for people who are homeless to isolate if and when they get the virus.

The number of guests at that hotel, however, has dwindled. There have been just a few dozen known positive cases of the virus among people who are homeless and many were asymptomatic.

MercyCare has led tests of more than 2,000 people within and outside homeless shelters. The nonprofit healthcare provider plans to continue to do sporadic testing at service providers in the weeks to come.

One of the groups involved in moving people into the so-called “healthy hotel” is HOPE Atlanta. Director Jeff Smythe said it was exciting for his teams just to be able to offer housing during their outreach.

“You’re working on building trust,” Smythe said. “But often when you build that trust, there isn’t an easy, quick fix in terms of ‘Let’s get you into this type of housing or this type of even shelter.’”

He said there are still more people who need shelter and fit the city’s criteria for being at risk of the COVID-19 virus. But his teams felt that they were able to house the most vulnerable of their clients.

And once vacancies at the hotel open up, new people can move in, Marchman said. The goal now is to find the current hotel residents long-term living options.

“We are going to coordinate the movement into permanent housing in a short timeframe,” she said. “If we can achieve that, then I think that’ll be the real win.”

The pandemic makes that effort more difficult, she said. Some people don’t have the identification they need to sign leases, and the outbreak has disrupted government record services.

Advocates said they’ll also need to overcome preexisting problems, like finding landlords who accept housing subsidies, which made affordable housing a challenge in Atlanta long before the pandemic.