By Daniel Silliman
The small woman seemed to be swallowed by the big coat.
Curled up on a bench in the atrium of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the fur-fringed hood covered her face and she seemed to be sleeping.
There were three or four people sleeping on the seats in the atrium in the middle of the day Monday, their eyes closed against the sunlight coming through the glass dome as they dozed through the din of travel. To Atlanta Police Officer Thelma Barnes, though, the sleeping woman was obviously different, because she didn't have luggage.
Barnes walked up to the sleeping woman and tapped her knee quickly and repeatedly until the woman sat up, groggy, and Barnes asked, "Do you have business at the airport?"
In the last 30 days, the police at Hartsfield-Jackson have dealt with almost 80 homeless people. Some were sleeping, like the woman in the big coat, but others were begging for money in the food court. Others were allegedly attempting to steal luggage off of the carousels.
"The biggest reason they're here is that it's a very safe environment," said Maj. Darryl Tolleson, who oversees the police department's airport section. "And it's warm. It's clean. The bathrooms are nice."
Last year, the officers at the airport had 700 documented encounters with homeless people there. Some of those were told to move on. Many were arrested on loitering-related charges and sent to the Clayton County Jail.
The police department's policy was strict enforcement, a policy that wasn't working, Tolleson said, and was dramatically changed in late February.
"Strict enforcement, arresting people, was not effective in reducing the number of homeless people at the airport," the major said. "The strategy of strict enforcement is a short-term solution to the problem.
"Many times, the business and residential communities have demanded immediate and forceful police action when addressing the homeless issue, believing the problem would be resolved with an arrest, when in reality, the homeless person would spend a night or two in jail and get a sentence of time served, then return to the airport."
Barnes, who's been with the department for 25 years, said sending a homeless person to jail didn't feel like a solution to a problem. It just felt like a continuation of the cycle of the homeless person's life.
"They just don't have anywhere else to go," she said. "We would give them a criminal trespass [citation], but we'd see them again."
Sometimes, Barnes and Tolleson said, officers would get to know a homeless person who repeatedly turned up at the airport and, instead of making an arrest, would try to help. Barnes said she would sometimes try to give people a little money, a train ticket or food.
In February, helping the homeless became the department's standard response at Hartsfield-Jackson. "The new approach," Tolleson said, "is that we try to identify the needs of the homeless and get them into the service programs they need."
The new approach is named Homeless Outreach Prevention Emergency Services -- or H.O.P.E.
Twelve of the 133 officers assigned to the airport precinct have gone through Crisis Intervention training and Georgia Bureau of Investigation classes sponsored by the National Association of Mental Illness, which are designed to help them determine the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of homelessness.
According to Tolleson, many of the homeless people at the airport have a "disabling condition," such as an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction.
"We're trying to get to the underlying problem," the major said. "Incarceration is simply not going to help someone who's struggling with a disabling condition."
Speaking to someone, like the woman without luggage who was awakened in the atrium, officers now determine if the person is homeless, determine if there is an underlying need, and then offer to get the person help.
Most of the almost 80 homeless people who've spoken to police in the first 30 days of the program, according to officers, have chosen to accept help, and were taken to the Gateway 24/7 Homeless Services Center, on Pryor Street, S.W., in Atlanta.