Security alert renews concerns over airport homeless population

A security checkpoint at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport temporary shuts down after a homeless man's bag is mistaken for a possible bomb. Now airport staff is calling on city hall to address the growing homeless population. They said if something's not done, there could be more disruptions.

Staff said the homeless population has at least doubled. It has been driven by several factors including a sustained cold period, a major downtown shelter being closed, and a change at City Hall over how to treat the homeless who wind up at the airport. The policy is those police officers can no longer tell them to leave if they don’t have any business there.

The latest discussion over homeless at the airport was started last Monday after police ordered the central checkpoint at the airport to be shut down due to an alert over an unattended bag. There was nothing harmful in the bag. Airport staff believes one of the growing numbers of individuals who sleep at the airport walked away from the bag.

“You don't know where their backpacks, their clothing, everything has been,” said Vince Champion, Director of the Atlanta Police Union. “The police now are sitting here, now you have to bring in more resources to cordon off that area, make sure the public doesn't show up in there, put our officers in harm’s way because you don't know what's going on.”

The incident last Monday happened during the morning commuter rush. Police order what is called a soft evacuation of the airport atrium until a bomb-sniffing dog could get in there to check the bag.

“It hasn't been determined yet whether it belonged to someone who was homeless, but there was a bag,” said Andre Dickens, Atlanta City Council.

“Let's all be honest, we can tell who's flying and who’s not, for the most part,” said Champion. “It is a safety issue not only for the traveling public, but it is a safety issue for our officers.”

“Yeah, I really need to sit down and talk to our law department and our police. we probably need to have a sit-down,” said Dickens regarding the police not having the power to remove a homeless person at the airport.

To put into perspective, a family who is trying to regroup an hour between flights couldn’t find a place to sit together among the dozens of seats in the airport atrium because they were being occupied by homeless.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Monday afternoon there has been a request from the airport’s general manager for more homeless advocates, but there is no perfect solution to the problem. Bottoms also expressed she needed to call all the different parties together to discuss the growing homeless population.