Around 3 a.m. on a recent Friday, Alex Nunn stood in the freezing cold near the Greyhound bus station in south downtown and recalled how he became homeless.
Three months ago, the 52-year-old Atlanta transplant moved here after finishing a three-year prison sentence and initially moved in with his girlfriend. The relationship quickly went south, however, and since then he has stayed in the city's shelters. On this particular night, the ex-convict was turned away because the shelter where he usually stays was full. With nowhere to go, he roamed the streets without a place to rest his head.
"Things move quickly," he says.
Nunn was among the nearly 400 men and women living on the streets and in shelters who were asked questions about their mental health conditions, prior housing situations, drug abuse, and employment history. For 12 hours, more than 150 volunteers surveyed Atlanta's homeless as part of the city's registry effort, which plans to take the collected data and create broader policies as well as match homeless individuals with local service providers best suited to serve their specific needs.
Kristin Canavan Wilson, the director of the City Hall project known as the Innovation Delivery Team, which is funded by a multiyear grant from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic foundation, says the registry could be an invaluable resource that could help the city and partner organizations such as United Way, Hands On Atlanta, and Central Atlanta Progress move men and women off the streets and into permanent housing.
"We want the registry to be embedded in our community as a system for how we think about identifying [the homeless] and make sure our housing resources are prioritized heavily for those who are most vulnerable and most in need," Wilson says.
The registry focuses on two categories of the homeless population: the "sheltered," which consists of people sleeping under a service provider's roof, and "unsheltered," which is made up of those who spend the night underneath bridges, in south downtown doorways, and even the airport.
Michael Gullatte was one of the "unsheltered" homeless men registered early Friday morning. Around 3:30 a.m., volunteer Jake Maguire woke him up outside of a Mitchell Street loading bay, offering him a $5 McDonald's gift card in exchange for his participation.
Gullatte, who said he's been homeless for five years, agreed to let Maguire ask him a series of personal questions and take his picture. The photo is used to "put a name to the face" and make future outreach easier.
For many "unsheltered" men and women, it's difficult to seek out the services designed to help them, says Maguire, a spokesman for the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a nonprofit that's working to curb homelessness in more than 180 cities.
"That's especially true," he says, "for those with a substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, a chronic physical condition, that may make it very difficult for them to navigate these complex, often bureaucratic social service systems."
At Atlanta Mission, one of the city's largest and oldest service providers, shelter director Michael Sheppard greets dozens of volunteers who have come to interview men at the facility just a few blocks north of Centennial Olympic Park.
"These are the people who don't have contact with services or service providers," Sheppard says. "They may not even know what's provided by the city."
More than 225 men spending the night at Atlanta Mission and other shelters throughout the city voluntarily participated in the registry. That included Charles, a longtime Atlantan, who declined to give his last name. Charles has stayed at Atlanta Mission "on and off" for the past 12 years. He has struggled to find permanent work for about 15 years, and thinks that the survey "could help" curb homelessness by allowing a service provider to better understand his needs.
"It's not like I wake up every day saying that I really want to go to Atlanta Mission today," he says. "I'm looking for something permanent daily. Temp jobs are all right, but I'm really tired of the temporary."
Reese McCranie, a spokesman for Mayor Kasim Reed, thinks that the registry will help service providers better understand the specific barriers that some homeless men and women face in finding permanent housing.
"We want to find out at a very granular level what brought these individuals to homelessness, whether it's substance abuse or mental illnesses or just kind of down on their luck," says McCranie. "We want to identify what their needs are, put them on a path to sustainable housing."
Service providers and volunteers this week will return to the streets to interview more homeless men and women for the registry. Following that, the city will spend the rest of the month sifting through the collected data, which officials will share at a community meeting on Feb. 1.
After that come the more difficult questions, such as how to act upon the census' findings. In addition, homeless service providers will continue to grapple with a shortage of funding for programs and available beds to house homeless people wanting to get off the street. But the first step, advocates say, is knowing what kind of help men and women living on the street actually need. As one volunteer put it: "You've got to have data to make decisions."