Eric Wright is finding out there’s a lot more to making Atlanta’s invisible population visible.
During a Georgia State study from the summer of 2015, Wright, a sociology professor, assembled a team of students and staff to tally the burgeoning number of homeless youth in the city.
But after over eight months of analyzing the results from the initial count, Wright told The Signal they needed to dig into other contributing factors that were previously overlooked.
“We wanted to be sure that our coding of the data accurately reflected the experiences of these youth who do not have a public voice,” he said. “[Homeless youth] are extremely vulnerable, and because of their personal challenges, their survey answers were not easily summarized.”
The Atlanta Youth Count is the codename for Georgia State’s summer 2015 four-week study in which more than 80 Georgia State students and volunteers combed Atlanta, surveying the “precariously housed,” a federally used term for homeless youth aged 14 to 25, according to Wright.
The volunteers asked the people they encountered to complete a brief survey about their current and past experiences with homelessness, as well as factors that led to their homelessness and health status. Wright said the youth “defied traditional social categories.”
“The youth we surveyed were very diverse in terms of race, gender and sexuality, so we had to understand and categorize that with people who had more traditional understanding,” he said.
Wright wouldn’t reveal the final count to The Signal but he said the results were “larger than most people estimate.” Wright also said the data took longer than expected because his team made sure the results were clean and matched up to the computer data. They also conducted their surveys at night in dangerous Atlanta neighborhoods, such as “The Bluff” near Vine City.
Wright and his volunteers visited several youth hangouts more than once, covering a larger group of homeless youth than any in the southeast. He also said many of them are mobile, couchsurf, some are sex workers and spend nights at their johns’ homes, and travel in small packs, occasionally collect money for a night in a hotel, or staying in bars until closing.
“When we learned the police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) had started heavily enforcing The Bluff, making the young people move out temporarily, they were easier to find because they moved a lot and they didn’t sleep outside much,” he said.
Wright said he and his volunteers dressed down and worked with Atlanta Police Department (APD) and experienced outreach workers in order to blend into high crime areas like The Bluff and ensure everyone’s safety. He also said young Georgia State students helped make the homeless youth feel more comfortable in answering questions.
“The interviewers all dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts and comfortable shoes,” Wright said. “They were trained not to dress in a flashy way. We emphasized blending into the social terrain.”
The Point in Time (PIT) count is an overnight tally of homeless Americans, and Atlanta tallied up almost 14,000, and over 1,800, or 13 percent are homeless youth aged 18-24, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA).In January, homeless people are indoors and presumably easier to find, according to Wright.
Georgia State Dean of Students Darryl Holloman said there are no official records tracking homeless students aside from a student’s self-reporting. He also told The Signal in an email Georgia State and Embark Georgia created a safe space to house about 35 homeless students this year, exceeding that total by four more students.
Student Government Association (SGA) President Pro-Tempore Justin Brightharp said he first learned of the homeless student count during a town hall meeting last fall, and has been working with Holloman on the issue since.
“As of now, we have a meeting with Faculty Affairs, the Dean of Students office and housing to discuss the next step,” he said.
Wright will explain the factors that he and his team of students and volunteers faced on May 3 at 10:30 am in a press conference while conducting the Atlanta Youth Count last summer. He hopes the information and the issues of homelessness, aside from public interest, will eventually be addressed. By noon on May 3, the Atlanta Youth Count will be made available online.