Crisis at the airport: Homeless could cause coronavirus hot spot at Hartsfield-Jackson

Channel 2 Action News has learned that hundreds are seeking refuge at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on any given night, as city leaders and non-profits work to find more shelter.

ATLANTA — The world's busiest airport is facing a huge challenge amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Channel 2 Action News has learned that hundreds of the city’s homeless are seeking refuge at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on any given night, as city leaders and non-profits work to find more shelter.

Some nights, there are double the number of people we’ve known to seek shelter there in the winter months.

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Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr has learned that airport employees and leaders worry it could easily create another coronavirus hot spot in the near-empty airport.

“How many people would you say you saw sleeping there?” Carr asked airport employee Scott Rigsby.

“We counted over 60 in one night in just that area,” Rigsby said.

But Channel 2 Action News has confirmed the numbers are much higher.

“In recent weeks it’s been about 200-plus people per night,” said Jeff Smythe, CEO of HOPE Atlanta.

Symthe’s organization tracks and tries to find comprehensive ways of preventing homelessness. His team is currently screening the unsheltered for coronavirus, and some nights, seeing twice as many people staying overnight than in past months.

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“The airport and our outreach team are not necessarily poised for that kind of volume,” Smythe said of the increasing number of homeless staying overnight.

“And what’s left behind, who knows? With the virus going on the way it is, it could be very dangerous. Somebody needs to take control of the issue,” Rigsby said.

In an email chain obtained by Channel 2 Action News over the weekend, a community group forwarded concerns to HOPE Atlanta, and that was forwarded to City Council members.

The email outlines airport staff notes from recent days. One talks about a woman who was recently bleeding, walking through the airport for two hours until an airline agent could find her sanitary napkins and a change of clothes.

Another person was spotted relieving themselves in the planters.

That email included a note that "employees are frantic,” and that employees were being told to bring their own Lysol and Clorox, which tends to be nearly sold out at metro area stores.

“I share the concerns that have been brought to your concern,” Smythe said.

He said in recent weeks they’ve struggled with communicating with the homeless in the terminals, trying to conduct coronavirus screenings. Sometimes mental health is at play.

“The other night when I was there, even to just ask some questions about COVID-19 symptoms, there is a percentage of our population that will not even enter into a conversation and will not even give our outreach teams the time of day," Smythe said.

Besides protective equipment needed for outreach staff, there are fewer sheltering options to go along with a greater need during the pandemic and an increasingly older, at-risk population seeking airport shelter.

“They’re aware that they’re at higher risk and yet not feeling like they have a place where they can be. And so they’re hopping on MARTA. They’re coming to the airport for shelter. They’re doing their best. Not trying to cause any commotion. Not trying to have any hygiene problems but certainly wanting to stay under the radar," Smythe said.

While there's been an 11 p.m. call to clear the airport terminals of anyone outside of passengers for the past two years, people working to resolve the problem have found a few things: you can't stop people from riding MARTA to the airport and there's nothing criminal about them staying.

Atlanta police and HOPE Atlanta can only try to offer relocation support.

“But we cannot force it. It is absolutely choice. It is absolutely up to each individual’s intention and desire,” Smythe said.

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown serves on a subcommittee to address homelessness. He told Carr that some homeless have been tested for coronavirus at the airport and moved into isolation.

“I mean, the situation has become quite serious at the airport,” Brown said. “But we also need a holding hotel to help transition these people outside of the airport because the conditions are creating a harmful environment to the safety workers, the airport employees and staff, the airlines staff and employees. It’s just getting to a point where we need to start alleviating that."

Besides working to get more testing and provide outreach teams the protective gear they need to help relocate people, Brown said he’s been working with partners for homes and enlisting a therapist to tackle the other problem — convincing people to actually move.

“There are shelters in places. The problem is that the homeless that are camping out at the airport. I haven’t seen with my own eyes, which is why I’m going on Wednesday, but I believe many of them are complacent in their state of being where they’re not receptive to receiving assistance,” Brown said.

Airport employees like Rigsby are concerned about the length of potential exposure, saying airport staff are essential, not expendable.

“They’ve got enough worries as it is, not to have to think about maybe bringing something else home,” Rigsby said.

The airport staff deferred Carr’s questions to the city Monday.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has been named to the state’s task force to help the homeless during the coronavirus crisis. Carr contacted Bottoms’ office on Sunday for comment about the airport, specifically.

Bottoms addressed the issue in a town hall on Tuesday.

“What we’ve seen so far, is people who are at the airport appear to be asymptomatic. There’s no way for us to know if people have COVID-19,” Bottoms said. “We are working with all our partners to come up with solutions to this. But in the meanwhile, there are some very concrete steps being taken by our partners as well as the people working at the airport.”

“What we’re dealing with by and large at the airport, is what’s often described as our hard to reach homeless population. So, we’re dealing with many people who have underlying challenges, quite often mental health challenges that often make it difficult to assess and redirect them to other shelters,” Bottoms said.

In addition to the efforts that Brown detailed, Smythe said on Monday that there are some solutions in the works with the city but is not ready to announce them yet.

Bottoms said the airport is also working on some solutions that can be done quickly.

“They include removing some of the seating in the atrium at the airport. You are not supposed to lodge at the airport to the extent people are sleeping at the airport. People are going throughout the night attempting to wake them up,” Bottoms said.

Bottoms has spoken about an angel donor who offered a downtown hotel for homeless isolation and quarantine. It is unclear if that is an option being used to address the population staying in the airport right now.

A representative with the city sent Carr a statement on Tuesday, saying:

"We are seeing an increase in homeless individuals congregating at the airport for a variety of reasons: access to food, phone charging stations, shelters who have stopped intake procedures and a number of other issues.

"The Mayor has worked closely with her team to ensure immediate compliance, and as needed, additional measures to further reduce the risk of exposure to people experiencing homelessness and airport staff.

“The City continues to support the ongoing work of our partners on the ground every day and night, offering services and support to people experiencing homelessness. Under normal circumstances, there are challenges with segments of this population due to mental health and addiction issues—this is especially so during a pandemic. The City and its partners are working to finalize funding and action plans for additional solutions, such as emergency lodging with the opportunity for placement into permanent housing.”

The world's busiest airport is feeling the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the effects could last for years.