Addressing the bigger problem: What GSUPD is doing to help the homeless

Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal Archives 2018

Randell is a homeless man from Thomasville, Georgia. He has lived in and out of prisons, homeless shelters and mental health hospitals. Now he lives under a bridge near Georgia State’s campus.

“I was a dog. I never knew my biological family,” James P. Randell said. “I stay under the bridge near Avis. I have my own path back there. They’re willing enough to let me keep my property at the Waffle House on Courtland. I have a cart and a blanket. I don’t even have clean clothes to wear,” Randell said.

Some students give him a dollar when they see him. Some give him their lunch leftovers or a snack that they just happen to have in their backpack. To the passerby, this small exchange could be seen as nothing other than an act of kindness. To GSUPD, it could mean the start of another painful cycle.

According to GSUPD officer Sgt. Joseph Corrigan, feeding the homeless on the street carries more consequences than some may have thought.

“Our problem has turned from the homeless being a problem to the people who want to help them, because help is subjective. There can be negative consequences to good deeds,” Corrigan said.

According to Corrigan, these temporary acts of kindness can stem into public health hazards and inhibit people from getting to more helpful resources.

“A lot of people like to go to Hurt Park and hand out food. But you’ve got no place for them to go and wash their hands. Before you arrived, they’re over there going through the garbage cans and guess who was there before them: the rats. So now you have a public health hazard,” Corrigan said.

Lovell Lemons, Director of Georgia State’s Civic Engagement Center, works with the city to assist homeless students in finding assistance.

“Another thing that people don’t take into consideration is the trash that comes from people eating on the streets. The rodents come and get bigger and the people that live Downtown have to deal with that,” Lemons said.

Oftentimes, when receiving help from a passersby on the street, homeless people stop pursuing help from licensed shelter or kitchens. This, according to Lemons and GSUPD, is a much bigger problem.

“If all I’m giving is a handout, am I an enabler? Am I making things worse?” Lemons said. “Everyone thinks going to Hurt Park and feeding them Thanksgiving is the answer. It’s not. They’re actually contributing to the problem. You keep bringing food to Hurt Park, the homeless are going to continue to go to Hurt Park,” Corrigan said.

Campus police say that finding a place for homeless people to get access to more than just food is a critical issue. Many homeless people may also need medication, clothing, shelter, or psychological attention. Temporarily feeding someone does not guarantee their well-being for more than that day.

“You can give them a meal today, but what about tomorrow?” Lemons said.

Requiring a permit may deter some people from feeding the homeless on the street, which in turn makes it necessary for a homeless person to seek help elsewhere. However, James Randell says that being fed on the street helped him survive. According to Randell, some have previously come and delivered biscuits to the homeless.

To Randell, permits just keep the help away.

“I think it’s negative and self-favoritism. They [police] got a job. It says “serve and protect” on the patrol car,” he said.

To Georgia State police chief Joseph Spillane, battling homelessness is a community-wide fight.

“What we do recognize as Georgia State University Police Department is that we’re really a part of the larger community which is the city of Atlanta so anything that happens in the city of Atlanta that involves the Downtown space involves Georgia State,” Spillane said.

And that, he said, is his motivation to stay involved.

“Our policy is to be very involved in any issues involving homelessness. Citizens may be on our campus and they may not be students but we feel a responsibility because they are on our campus,” Spillane said.

Having HOPE

Though many homeless people go hungry on a daily basis, GSUPD says a bigger threat to their lives is prolonged exposure to extreme elements. Eleven homeless people around the metro Atlanta area have frozen to death so far this season, simply because they had nowhere else to go.

“I’ve seen a baby out here freeze to death,” Randell said.

According to Sgt. Corrigan, 560 homeless people are spending time on Georgia State’s campus on any given day.

To combat hunger and exposure and to encourage promote more beneficial, longer-lasting practices, Spillane started the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) Team in June of 2017. According to Corrigan, the police-led program aims to help homeless people survive the conditions on the streets.

“We aren’t trying to put up physical barriers to homelessness or prevent homelessness because we know we can’t do that, but we do know we need to provide services,” Spillane said. “These people are just trying to survive in the world they found themselves in and we’re trying to help them do that.”

University police say they have focused on getting people out of dangerously cold conditions, handing out coats, and checking on people who are asleep outside.

However, Georgia State campus police have said the laws that prevent feeding the homeless are not to hurt anyone, but to promote more beneficial, longer-lasting practices. Police said that they are also handing out coats and directing people to shelters to prevent as many fatalities as possible.

According to Corrigan, members of Georgia State’’s HOPE team personally get to know local homeless men and women. With an identification book of 500 names and faces, Corrigan checks usual places to make sure that people are alive and safe. People are checked on periodically throughout the day and can be escorted to kitchens or shelters.

Police also carry around and give out coats to people without them. On especially cold nights, Corrigan said, the police set out in their van and stop to ask homeless people if they need an escort to a “warming facility,” or a shelter. At shelters, people are entered into job programs, counseling, and classes on how to interact with the police.

With this system, Corrigan says the HOPE team has reached hundreds of people. “We aren’t here to provide enforcement actions against homeless people, we really want to try to provide them with a helping hand and move them to a better place in their lives,” Spillane said.

Quaterious, a local homeless woman who has been on the streets for four months, confirmed that she has been approached by campus police to assure that she has eaten and to be escorted to a shelter.

Instead of attempting to help by feeding people on the street, Lemons suggested students make themselves aware of the issues and volunteer to help with credible nonprofits.

He also said food may not be the only thing that a homeless person is hungry for.

“Get to know a person and their situation,” he said. “Show that you care. How often do they get to sit down and tell their stories? That can be therapeutic for them.”