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Hypothermia deaths multiply after Atlanta shelter closed

Stephen Deere, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

ATLANTA -- At least 18 homeless people died from hypothermia since Atlanta's infamous homeless shelter known as Peachtree-Pine officially closed in August 2017, according to an internal city report.

Fourteen of those deaths occurred in the 2018 calendar year.

The number of fatalities is particularly striking when compared to data from the Fulton County Medical Examiner's office, which shows the entire county had an annual average of 4.3 homeless deaths that "involved cold exposure" or hypothermia over the 10-year period from 2007-16.

The Atlanta City Council has grown increasingly concerned about the problem and last month held a committee work session to discuss outreach and providing services to the chronically homeless population as winter weather takes hold.

The city's report doesn't specifically mention Peachtree-Pine, a massive brick building in south Midtown that for years was the center of tuberculosis outbreaks, bitter legal battles and a social debate about how to serve one of most challenging segments of the homeless population.

Peachtree-Pine was often referred to as a "low-barrier" shelter, meaning it accepted virtually anyone who needed a roof over their heads, including chronic alcoholics typically rejected by other shelters.

 

"This is what we were worried about," said Steven G. Hall, a Baker Donelson lawyer who helped represent the shelter in legal disputes. "We were worried that there would not be a backstop."

The report, which was authored by city ombudsman Stephanie Ramage, examined two years of homeless hypothermia deaths in 2017 and 2018. Ramage found that 19 homeless people died from hypothermia during that period.

According to the report, alcohol was the most common denominator in the deaths.

In sixty five% of the fatalities, autopsy reports indicate that alcohol intoxication or withdrawal from alcohol was a significant factor.

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