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Bridging the Gap in Homeless Services During the Pandemic

December 15,2020

Sumar Deen, Georgia State University News

ATLANTA—Tammy Hughes (B.S.W. ‘16, M.S.W. ‘17) starts her workday tallying open shelter beds for individuals who would otherwise be sleeping outside in downtown Atlanta.

From there she moves to curating negative COVID-19 test results addressed to individuals with whom her homeless outreach team has connected. Negative results are now required for admission to most homeless shelters, so those without reliable technology send their test results to Hughes’ email address.

Armed with the negative results, she and her team hit the streets to distribute them and assist their owners with the next steps towards ending homelessness.

Hughes is the social impact director at Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), a nonprofit community development organization. For her, the work of connecting vulnerable populations with community resources has always been a passion.

It became her profession with her studies at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

“The social work program at Georgia State was an easy choice. Instead of being clinically focused like many others, it’s community-based,” she said. “I was drawn to the belief that the community is our classroom.”

Hughes’ ties with the school helped her land her current position.

“Part of what propelled me to the top over roughly 150 other interviewees was a glowing recommendation from Dr. Susan Snyder,” Hughes said. “She pours so much into her students and is a big part of who I am as a social worker today.”

Hughes was hired to serve as liaison among the stakeholder groups living and working within the 220 blocks designated by CAP as the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID). This year, she faced the unexpected task of balancing COVID-19’s impact on individuals experiencing homelessness with its corresponding effect on the area’s delicate ecosystem of business and property owners, residents and visitors.

“Business owners and community residents were concerned at the beginning of the pandemic,” Hughes said. “They thought there had been an explosion in the homeless population. And there was genuinely less outreach by social service providers then. Many of those who do this work were at home, following public health guidelines to stay safe from the virus.”

So in August, Hughes launched the ADID Social Impact Safety Team (A.S.I.S.T.), a mobile unit that traverses the city on foot with tablets to reconnect individuals experiencing homelessness with the social services they need.

“We’re meeting them where they are, which is what makes this team so effective,” she said. “We partner with a homeless service provider for contract beds so when we engage with someone who wants to get off the streets, we immediately have a place for them to go.”

Twenty-nine percent of Atlanta’s homeless population live with severe mental illness which potentially affects their ability to obtain services. Other barriers include physical health concerns, lack of knowledge of services, or absence of reliable transportation.

“The weight is on the person in need to find services,” she said. “I believe the opposite should be true.”

By early December, A.S.I.S.T. had reached nearly 800 of an estimated 3,240 individuals living on Atlanta’s streets. Hughes hopes the initiative will pave the way for similar programs around the country.

“We’ve demonstrated that it’s a needed service and a value added to the community,” she said. “I want people to see this is a microcosm of what can happen with homeless services as whole when we work collaboratively.”