The world’s busiest airport has increasingly become a refuge for Atlanta’s homeless, especially during cold weather.
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The domestic terminal is sometimes filled with homeless people overnight and into the early morning, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
There have periodically been some homeless people at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a public terminal open 24 hours a day.
But after the closure of a large shelter downtown and a prolonged spate of frigid temperatures, this winter large numbers of homeless people have been using the airport to escape the cold, the newspaper reported.
Over the past couple of months, many homeless people have been taking the train to the Atlanta airport stop, settling down in the chairs or stretching out on the floor in the domestic terminal atrium, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Frequent traveler Patricia Martin-Dye arrived at the airport overnight for a recent early morning flight and saw homeless people around the atrium and in the domestic terminal.
“They were everywhere,” Martin-Dye said. “I’ve probably been in the airport more than 20 times in the last two years, and I can never remember it being the way it was last night. It was just really concerning to me.”
Officials were asking people to show boarding passes to prove they had a flight to catch. If not, they were told they were trespassing.
“As soon as they would get rid of some, here comes more,” Martin-Dye said.
Martin-Dye said she thinks the influx of homeless people at the airport “definitely creates a stigma.”
Travelers waiting for flights “don’t want people coming up to them or sitting next to them (who don’t) smell properly or dress properly and asking them for money,” she said. She said it was “heartbreaking,” especially because the temperature dipped into the 30s that night and “they were not dressed adequately at all.”
“You don’t want people to see a negative, coming from all over the world, coming from different countries. Coming to America, and that’s what you see?” she said. “That’s not anything for us to be proud of.”
Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie said the airport takes “safety and security very seriously.”
“We continue to work closely with our partners to assist those who may be experiencing homelessness and find a long-term solution,” McCranie said. “We’re going to treat those who may be experiencing homelessness with humanity. Certainly during the colder months we’ll show heart and compassion.”
Police officers at the airport “stand ready to address any criminal activity, regardless of the source,” according to Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos. “They are also committed to helping any individual experiencing homelessness they encounter to understand the resources for assistance available to them.”
The city of Atlanta opens warming centers when the temperature drops.
However, city officials “cannot force anyone to take shelter in one of our emergency warming facilities,” according to Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “The city believes individuals experiencing homelessness should be treated with dignity and offered the resources and support to transition out of homelessness.”
Kimberly Parker, executive director of Central Outreach & Advocacy Center, an Atlanta-based organization that aims to prevent homelessness, said shelters have tended to be full, and some people “just don’t necessarily want to be in shelters that are quite crowded or at capacity, and are sometimes going to seek areas where they are more likely to find a space of their own, rather than just shoulder-to-shoulder, chair-to-chair.”
Alan Harris, an advocate for the homeless who previously led the Coalition for the Homeless Mentally Ill, said the homeless at the airport are “a reflection of what’s going on in the city.”
“We’re doing good jobs, it seems, of placing people in permanent housing, but it takes months and months,” Harris said. “We don’t have enough shelter for people to go into while they wait for the housing that they qualify for.”
“Imagine yourself, it’s 5 o’clock, it’s going to rain tonight. I don’t have a shelter, I don’t know where to stay dry. I don’t know where to go when it’s 28 degrees outside,” Harris said. “So they go wherever they can go, and one of those places is the airport.”