By Mark Davis
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Dorsey had the wheel. He guided the van off I-75 and eased it onto downtown's streets. Thomas sat beside him. Nich and 'Berg had the rear.
Four Atlanta cops in an unmarked Aerostar, looking. They didn't have to look long.
Dorsey — William Dorsey, but his partners don't bother with full names — nodded toward a man standing on the edge of a tent city where Pryor Street passes under I-20. The man waved his arms. He hopped on one foot, then the next, a human marionette pulled by strings only he could see.
The white van stopped. The unending boom of traffic thudded against its doors.
The four — Dorsey, Jaysen Thomas, Dwaine Heidelberg and Indra Nicholson — readied for another day dealing with that most intractable of problems, Atlanta's homeless. They're the Atlanta Police Department's Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement squad. Everyone calls them the HOPE team.
Since 2005, specially trained city police officers have worked with the United Way, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Travelers Aid and other organizations to find people housing, food or mental health care. Sometimes, their help is as simple as arranging a bus ride for someone wanting to return home. It's constant work: Atlanta has an estimated 6,000 homeless people, a figure that specialists say may not truly reflect the total of people sleeping under bridges, in woods or in abandoned buildings.
The officers stepped onto cold pavement, walking past discarded cans, jeans, shoes, shirts, foam food containers and things not so easily identified, the flotsam and jetsam of society's most marginalized.
Dorsey spoke first. "Atlanta police!" It came out "POH-lice," a verbal command to pay attention. It worked. Walter Malabuyoc stopped waving and hopping. The cops could read his cap: "Hooked on Jesus."
What was his problem? Dorsey asked.
What followed was a litany of woes, a rant of complaints. Malabuyoc had come to Atlanta from South Georgia. Yes, he was homeless. No, he was not a drug addict. Others had robbed him — beat him up, too. "I've been in a lot of pain." He pointed at his eyes. "My tears come from here."
Dorsey interrupted. Did he need help? Should police contact his family? Did he want —
Malabuyoc shook his head, no, no, no. He just wanted to file a report, to call a lawyer, to speak to his daughters, to go to the library, to —
The cops exchanged knowing glances. The streets take a toll on all its residents. Some pay heavier prices than others.
When Malabuyoc assured officers that he planned to get out of the cold and visit a library, the four left him. Malabuyoc, they tacitly agreed, wasn't mentally ill — at least, not enough to be taken against his will for observation or care, as the law allows. Perhaps they'd see him another day.
The officers' encounter with the homeless man underscores the way Atlanta cops deal with street residents, police Lt. Antonio Clay said. He's a supervisor in the Police Department's community liaison unit, of which the HOPE team is a part.
"If someone wants help, we can help them," Clay said. "Our goal is not to throw them in jail."
HOPE is not unique; other police departments have similar programs, said Michael Stoops, the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. But he's not certain such efforts are best, as homeless people often are afraid of police. "It's generally a better practice for social services agencies to do that kind of outreach," Stoops said.
And some homeless people simply don't want help, regardless of who's offering it. Consider Paul Ledbetter. For a homeless guy, he has it pretty good: He sleeps in a box made of plywood, with a shingled roof sporting a slender stove pipe. It's one of several knocked-together shacks behind Atlanta Metropolitan State College, south of downtown. The HOPE team stopped by to take an inventory of the shanty town to see whether any newcomers had moved in. None had.
An unemployed carpenter, Ledbetter said he's lived in the woods behind the college for seven, maybe eight, years. He regularly declines offers to relocate. "I'm more or less happy here," Ledbetter said.
While he talked to Nicholson, other officers walked paths that snaked through slender hardwoods. When spring comes, the police said, the little village will be invisible. As will its occupants.
"We offer them resources," Nicholson said. She's the newcomer to the squad, joining less than a year ago. "We can only encourage them."
The HOPE officers agree: Atlanta is not a bad place if you're homeless. The weather is generally pretty agreeable. A lot of churches offer free meals. It's a hub for social service agencies that help homeless people.
Sometimes, it doesn't matter. Some homeless people return to the underpass they left only weeks earlier — James Wise, for one. He moved temporarily from his site at Pryor and the I-20 bridge in downtown Atlanta in the recent cold crunch. He was soon back, living in a lightweight tent whose walls quivered in the wind. He was asleep when Dorsey stuck his head near the zipped flap.
"Police. Police! Anybody there?"
"Yeah!" Wise poked his head out. He turned a lined face toward the four officers, blinked, rubbed sleep from his eyes, then reached for worn sneakers.
How long had he been living on Atlanta's streets? "Three years," Wise replied. He stuck around, Wise said, because a nearby church gives him food. He's originally from East Point.
Did he want to go back? "No, uh-uh," he said. "Ain't nothing there."
The HOPE officers exchanged glances. Perhaps they'd see him another day, too.
Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
McClatchy-Tribune News Service