Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, at the end of a MARTA line and open 24 hours a day, has for years been a draw for homeless people looking for a place to sleep.
That’s particularly true during cold snaps, and airport officials have taken various approaches over the years.
“Homeless people routinely will come out to the airport,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Roosevelt Council during a discussion on the matter at a city council transportation committee meeting Wednesday. “Normally they will catch that last train of the night that comes into the airport. A lot of them will actually seek to get shelter there at the airport…. People will come out there when they have nowhere else to go.”
He said a routine at the airport starts at midnight, with law enforcement surveying the terminal for homeless and helping them get to a shelter.
Some come with luggage and “try to pretend to be travelers,” Council said, but police have become “very adept” at identifying homeless at the airport. “It’s an ongoing concern that we have, and it’s almost impossible for us to stop it,” he said.
Atlanta city council member Felicia Moore asked at the meeting for details about what happens to homeless who are found at the airport. “I’ve always suspected someone who may be without a home may stay at an airport,” Moore said.
“We rarely have to arrest anyone,” Council said. “We try to discourage them from coming, but from what I have witnessed we’ve never been inhumane in our treatment of them. It has always been, ‘Well let’s just walk out.'”
More from the AJC’s 2013 project “Airport After Dark”
On a bitterly cold night nearly two years ago, dozens of Atlanta’s homeless were sprawled across the terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson.
They’d streamed in on the last MARTA train, set up for the night, then cleared out in the morning before flights resumed.
That type of scene is far less common now.
About a year and a half ago, Atlanta airport police boosted enforcement of a 1996 loitering ordinance that dictates it’s “unlawful for any person to use or remain in the airport for the purpose of lodging,” except in the case of severe weather, flight delays or other disruption to airport activity.
Airport police officers patrol through the night, offering shuttle rides to persons who don’t have “legitimate reasons” to be on airport property. They’re taken to shelters, MARTA stations, or the residences of family or friends.
“We try to find them placement. … A safe place of their choosing,” says Atlanta airport police Lt. Timothy Algeo. Those who return are issued warnings, and multiple infractions can lead to arrest on criminal trespassing charges.
But enforcement at Hartsfield-Jackson ebbs and flows as Atlanta continues to wrestle with the complex issue of homelessness.
The airport may seem like an attractive refuge for some of the area’s 2,000 homeless — especially during the cold winter months, says Protip Biswas, vice president of United Way Greater Atlanta’s Regional Commission on Homelessness.
It’s “a place with light and warmth” that’s easily accessible by MARTA, says Biswas, who has worked with airport police to direct the homeless to services and shelters.
But as the ranks of the homeless increased at Hartsfield-Jackson, it became “a hazard to the paying customers,” says Algeo. The issue “really came to a head” about a year and a half ago.
It was “overwhelming,” says the police lieutenant. “We tried to find a humanitarian solution.”