Atlanta ASIST: Working Against Homelessness

Published by Hannah Carroll on

Atlanta ASIST: Working Against Homelessness

Created in 2020, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District’s Social Impact Safety Team, otherwise known as ASIST, has worked to ensure Atlanta’s homeless population receives adequate resources throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, Tammy Hughes, social impact director of ADID and progenitor of ASIST, began receiving calls from concerned members of the downtown business district. These members noticed an influx of homeless individuals residing in the area and inquired about these individual’s access to assistance. 

Unfortunately, the onslaught of COVID-19 cases left Atlanta’s homeless population particularly vulnerable, without resources for their health and well-being.

“Serving homeless individuals has not yet been deemed as an essential service… That meant where they would normally go in for water, restroom services, or for a meal or to get their medication or see their therapist… were unavailable to them,” Hughes said.

As a result, Hughes created an outreach team to help fill this lapse in services and fulfill ADID’s responsibility to care for the downtown Atlanta community. She organized a team of social and community service workers who would ultimately benefit both businesses and the homeless community.

ASIST continues to provide a variety of services to downtown Atlanta’s homeless population. These services include providing access to telemedicine appointments via electronic devices and paying for shelter beds to lead individuals on a path toward finding housing.

“We not only pay for the bed,” Hughes said, “We pay for that individual to be connected with a case manager… [who works] to transition them from the shelter into a permanent housing opportunity.”

Acting as a conduit between the homeless population and the resources Atlanta can provide, ASIST aims to provide a long-term solution.

Hughes attributes ASIST’s success to the organization’s outreach and trauma-centered approaches. Hughes said she believes those in need should not bear the burden of finding resources but, rather, those who obtain resources for struggling populations should find those in need.

“The weight should be on the organization or the individual who has the resource,” Hughes said. “So, that’s what outreach does. We take our resources to where the need is, and then, we match the resource with the need.”

This approach intends to alleviate some of the trauma and stress placed on those without a permanent residence. Hughes said her social work background has trained her to believe any person living on the street has or is experiencing some degree of trauma. Therefore, a trauma-informed approach is practiced in combination with ASIST’s outreach model.

“A trauma-informed approach starts at, ‘This person is experiencing trauma,’” Hughes said. “We need to… help them understand that we’re not blaming them. We want… our approach to be redemptive, and not punitive in any way because it’s hard enough what they’re going through.”

This approach also allows ASIST to connect with the homeless population and serve as a listening ear.

“When we go out and engage with them, … we start with a conversation,” Hughes said. “One of the things that we’ve identified as the highest need for people experiencing homelessness is just somebody to listen to them.”

Photo courtesy of Tammy Hughes

Although ASIST was originally developed with the intention of serving the community for the duration of 2020, the pandemic and its associated limitation of services caused the initiative to continue.

ASIST has documented large progress since its formation in 2020. As stated on their website, in the first quarter of 2021 alone, ASIST connected 312 homeless individuals to shelters. Additionally, in the organization’s first four months, ASIST engaged with more than 900 homeless individuals and placed approximately 40% of them in a shelter or other form of residence.

“We have grown from being a source of suspicion in the homeless community to being trusted communicators,” Hughes said.

Evidence of ASIST’s success can be found in the stories of their staff.  

Ronny Moore, a 63-year-old veteran and new team member at ASIST, was homeless for four to five years before connecting with the organization.

Initially, when approached by an ASIST team member, Moore was not willing to seek assistance; however, upon follow-up, he decided he was ready to find a home off of the streets.

Moore currently resides in transitional housing and is using his experience being placed in housing by ASIST to help him in his new position as a team member.

Hughes said she hired him because his experiences and stories are compelling ad hopefully inspire those in a similar position to take a chance on changing their lives.

“I couldn’t thank (ASIST) enough,” Moore said. “Not because I’m employed, but because of the fact that they care.”

Similar to Ronny Moore, Hernandez Wilson is also a new ASIST team member who previously experienced homelessness.

“(I was) trying to pay for a hotel room every night,” Wilson said. “When you’re making $85 to $90 a day, and a hotel room is like $75 or $80, that really doesn’t leave much money to eat on.”

After speaking with Tammy Hughes, he came to recognize a better way of life with more stability existed. ASIST placed Wilson in a long-term shelter and set him up with a case manager who thelped him secure long-term housing.

During his time in the shelter, Wilson said Hughes held him accountable for his progress.

“When she placed me (in the shelter), … one of my chores was to reach out to her at least once or twice a week to let her know the progress that I was making,” Wilson said. “You have to be accountable. To take the next step, you have to do something for yourself.”

Wilson now resides in his own apartment and is proud to say he has his “own mailbox.”

Wilson plans to bring his experience to the ASIST team by demonstrating how those who he interacts with can improve their lives. He emphasizes the need to empathize and listen to those he is working with.

“When you embrace the abnormal as the normal, then that’s the problem,” Wilson said. “That’s what we’re here to change. To try to get them back on their feet, give them a safe place to stay and show them that there is a brighter future, you just have to be willing to look forward.”

Overall, Tammy Hughes expresses great pride in ASIST and its contributions to downtown Atlanta. She acknowledges that ASIST could not have met its goals without the support of a network of resources the organization utilizes. She adds that ASIST’s success and effort to decrease homelessness in Atlanta have been rewarding.

Hughes aims to continue ASIST throughout the remainder of 2021. 

“The goal is more of the same,” Hughes said. “To help do our part to eradicate street homelessness and to decrease the numbers in the visible perception of homelessness on the streets of downtown Atlanta.”

Hughes encourages those who are not members of ASIST to help the initiative by discovering outreach as a long-term solution rather than simply solving immediate needs.

“Have some compassion on the visible perception of homelessness,” Hughes said. “Understand that (a homeless individual) has a story. You’re only getting a glimpse of where they are now, and it doesn’t necessarily speak to where they’ve been or where they can go.”

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