Their children are on the local school soccer team. They serve on the Parent-Teacher Association. Their neighbors admire them and want them to stay. Yet because of a bureaucratic dispute between the city and the suburbs, Friday will be the last day that 17 formerly-homeless mothers and their families are allowed to call the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta home.
The decision by Fulton County, GA officials to relocate these families would seem to run exactly counter to the purpose of the federally-funded permanent supportive housing program that put Natasha Jones and her son in their cramped but tidy apartment a few blocks from the stadium where the Atlanta Falcons play football on autumn Sundays. But because a county and city that once worked together closely are now at odds over how to tackle homelessness, dozens of once-marginalized people are about to be uprooted.
“One night they came out on their vans and started passing out a letter saying that the program was moving because of maintenance issues,” said Jones, one of 17 Vine City moms who posted a petition through Occupy Our Homes to fight the move. “They stood inside my home and told me, you deserve to be living in a neighborhood you can be proud of.” But Jones and her friends are proud of the lives they’ve made in Vine City. “I’ve been here since July, but this program is two years old. One of them is the PTA president for her child’s school, another two are officers on the PTA. You have people who are very involved in the community,” Jones said. “We are definitely woven into the fabric of the community.”
Jones and her fellow petitioners are demanding the stability and support they were promised when they enrolled in the program that gave them a home, which is a program specifically tailored to homeless families with disabilities. Jones’ 12-year-old son had his kidneys removed at the beginning of May and must be on dialysis every night, something that would be impossible in the homeless shelters where the two would be without the federally-funded Permanent Supportive Housing program.
When the Joneses first enrolled in that program, the bureaucratic authority that put federal anti-homelessness money into action was called the Tri-Jurisdictional Collaborative or Tri-J. Under the Tri-J, the local governments of Atlanta, Fulton County, and DeKalb County jointly applied for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to fight homelessness and jointly administered the resulting programs. It didn’t matter that the Vine City housing set-up for homeless families with disabilities was administered through Fulton County but located inside city limits, because the Tri-J rendered those jurisdictional boundaries effectively meaningless.
The collaboration showed significant positive results. There were just 411 permanent supportive housing beds for homeless people in the Atlanta area in 2003, but the Tri-J’s 2013 census reported 3,319 such beds — a roughly 700 percent increase in a decade. Part of that shift owes to a growing recognition among policymakers that giving people housing is both cheaper and more effective than funding shelters or criminalizing homelessness. But the collaboration between the city and the suburbs helped turn that abstract idea into a concrete reality for people like Natasha Jones.
Then, in 2013, the Tri-J partnership blew up. DeKalb County pulled out, citing disputes over how the roughly $12 million per year in HUD funds were being distributed among the three partners. Facing HUD deadlines to apply for renewed funding, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) chose to form his own organization. Fulton County declined to join the new Atlanta group, and suddenly all those jurisdictional lines that didn’t matter for a decade became very important.
Fulton County can’t keep operating in Vine City, and budget cuts in recent years have led Fulton to close down other facilities for the homeless. But according to Jones, county officials have repeatedly shifted the schedule for the move and misled the women about what was going on. At first they were told it was a maintenance issue with the Vine City property. “It wasn’t until we got this meeting on February 15 that we found out that it was because of the [jurisdictional changes], that that’s why we were actually moving,” Jones said.
In April, officials told the women that they would have to relocate immediately. “At first they were just gonna move the kids right then and there, they weren’t gonna let the kids finish school or anything,” Jones said. Her son’s surgery was scheduled for just a week after that meeting, and when Jones pointed out that they couldn’t move right away “he told me, ‘I don’t have any resources for you and you’re going to have to go back to a shelter.'” After some outcry, the county set a new move date of July 31, but did not tell anyone where the new location for the program would be. “Nobody was telling us, where are they going? How can you say, I’m going to work over here, or my child will go to school over there, or find a doctor’s office? Nothing could be done because nobody knew where they were going,” Jones said, until early June. Then the county moved the deadline up to Friday, June 27.
Vine City’s longer-term residents don’t want their new neighbors forced out either. “In neighborhoods like Vine City, which is definitely a struggling neighborhood, there’s usually a dynamic of homeowners versus renters, homeowners versus section 8,” said Tim Franzen of Occupy Our Homes Atlanta, the local arm of a movement that fights wrongful foreclosures and evictions and that is supporting the petition to prevent the relocations in Vine City. “What brought this to our attention is that the Vine City Civic Association, the organization for homeowners that are advocating for a better community in Vine City, they were the ones who reached out to us.” Rather than resenting the once-homeless people who were dropped into their community near the Georgia Dome, Vine City’s long-time residents have formed communal bonds with Jones and the others.
“They said, ‘What do we need to do to support these women who are being mistreated and pushed out of our community? These are women who have gotten involved in the schools and the soccer team and the church, they’re a value and we don’t want to see them go,'” Franzen said.
That kind of community involvement and rootedness is core to the goals of HUD’s housing-oriented approach to fighting homelessness. Removing these families from Vine City and setting them up in new digs a few miles away isn’t quite sending them back to square one, of course — square one was living on the street — but it certainly means moving back several spaces on the game board. “They’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, they’re achieving stability for themselves and their children,” Franzen said, “and then abruptly they were told they need to be out by July 31.” And even that deadline didn’t last. Jones says the women only got three weeks’ notice about the latest date change.
“The City of Atlanta was not involved in Fulton County’s decision to relocate these families from the Villas at the Dome in Vine City to other permanent, supportive housing in East Point,” said Carlos Campos, a spokesman for Mayor Reed, adding that “we understand from Fulton County that the needs of the once-homeless families are being met” at the new facilities. Fulton County says that it asked HUD to prevent the Tri-J from breaking up last year, but now the county has no options and the city has no authority to intervene. “Fulton County does not have jurisdiction or authority to direct the [City of Atlanta] on how to administer their [HUD homelessness program] or expend their grant funds,” a county spokeswoman said in response to questions about why the Vine City residents’ cases can’t simply be handed over to the city. “Fulton County needs to relocate the families to be in compliance with all the federal rules and regulations guiding the program,” she added.
That sort of mutual fingerpointing sounds all too familiar to Franzen and Jones. “We’re the collateral damage,” Jones said. “It’s all about headcount, what your headcount is is how much money you get. They’re not going to help us try to transition over to the city of Atlanta. They want to keep us because that’s more money for them.”
A solution “would require these two parties to talk to each other and the city of Atlanta to maybe be a little creative about finding a solution,” according to Occupy Our Homes’ Franzen, “but the resources are there. They’re being stubborn and territorial. The only people who are paying the price here are these families who have struggled with homelessness and fought to overcome it.”