News That Can Kill You

Warming center in 2018

Some stories you find in the news are confusing. That’s to be expected; life is complicated. Some stories actually make you less informed if you read them. But some are a working version of Roko’s Basilisk: if you read it and believe it, you might die.

Last night, the AJC posted a story about hypothermia deaths in Atlanta. The story originally began with this paragraph:

“On a frigid December night, a homeless woman was given a blanket as she sat on an Atlanta sidewalk. The 63-year-old wanted to be indoors but couldn’t find a place to go, according to a homeless advocate. The next morning, she was dead.”

Note the passive voice in the first and last line, and that the “homeless advocate” is allowed to go unnamed in the second.

AJC editors did a ninja edit on the piece after I saw it and hollered on Facebook.

The unnamed “homeless advocate” in the story appears to be Marshall Rancifer, who spoke at the Atlanta City Council about homelessness Monday, as part of a large demonstration about the city’s warming shelter practices.

Rancifer has a large activist following online. He also has a history of fabrication that should raise significant questions about his credibility.

He routinely claims to have helped “over 1,900 people” get off the street without help from the city or social services agencies. This claim is never challenged for actual evidence, even though that would represent a figure larger than the entire reported net reduction in homelessness in the city in the last seven years.

Last year, he claimed to have been turned away from warming stations. I found myself up at 1:30 a.m. at Central Park, having to document the open space and refute Rancifer’s commentary, just to keep people from ignoring the warming shelter and staying on the street. No one at the Central Park warming station remembered him ever even coming there, never mind being turned away with other people. No one had been turned away.

A few days later, Rancifer vociferously promoted a story that a baby had frozen to death under the bridge near Grady Memorial. Social services advocates flipped over half the city only to discover that there had been no ambulance roll, no emergency room admission, no police call, no medical examiner’s report, no body and no actual witnesses to a dead child there or anywhere in the city.

It was a hoax.

Rancifer had been a vocal proponent of the Peachtree and Pine shelter, which Central Atlanta Progress closed in late 2017 after settling a lawsuit with the previous operator. Social services agencies placed about 200 people into housing before shutting it down. They opened up new shelter space to accommodate need. Nonetheless, Rancifer has long viewed the social services infrastructure of Atlanta with deep hostility and attacked its work. I can only speculate why.

The city of Atlanta is responsible for opening overflow cold weather warming stations. It works with its homelessness nonprofit, Partners for Home, which coordinates outreach and 454 beds of emergency shelter overflow capacity as cold weather emerges. Two shelters open at 40 degrees F. A host of others open at 35 degrees.

If the warming shelters established by the city and community aren’t doing their job, this might improve the case for his own efforts, perhaps. Or something. I honestly don’t know; he and I stopped talking a year or more ago. When I started calling him out on credibility issues, I became Public Enemy #1 for him.

His background is necessary to understand his accusations. Rather than measure his charge against this history, the AJC instead quoted him anonymously … even though his name is right there on the city council website in the speaker’s list.

Rancifer claimed to have been with the 63-year-old woman on the night before she died, an act of remarkable timing in a city with at least 700 unsheltered homeless people. “I tried getting that woman in,” he said. “They didn’t open the large warming centers. I picked her up near the Peachtree Center train station, drove her to several of the places that were supposed to be open. They were full and wouldn’t take her.”

Faced with these failures, Rancifer returned her to the street with the one blanket he had left, discovering she had died the next day, he said.

“I knew this woman for five years,” he said. “I helped the Fulton County Medical Examiner identify her body. I can say her name now because I helped them find her family also.”

It was cold and rainy on the night of December 8 and the early morning of December 9. We had two inches of rain and wind of up to 30 miles an hour. It never quite dipped below freezing, hovering between 40 and 35 degrees most of the night.

Sgt. Janeane Schmidt of the Salvation Army said no one would have been turned away on Dec. 8. At worst, someone in a state of intoxication would have been referred to the Gateway Center or Grady. Notably, Rancifer didn’t actually say where he took the homeless woman he was with … which coincidentally frustrates any effort one might make to check. He certainly didn’t take her to Grady, even though he said he had been taking others to Grady’s emergency room to get them out of the cold.

If he was with her at all that night, failing to take her to Grady may have been a fatal mistake.

According to the medical examiner’s office, Lillie Hillman died of complications of sepsis, with malnourishment and environmental hypothermia listed as secondary causes. The sepsis probably could have been treated with antibiotics and intravenous fluids, had she been seen by a doctor.

I asked for the medical examiner’s report of all deaths from hypothermia as a primary or secondary consideration a few weeks ago. The sepsis cause was in the spreadsheet I received on January 7. The AJC reporter who wrote this story either received a different report or ignored the primary cause of death when writing her opening for the story.

Rancifer told the council he could “say her name now” … but never actually did say her name. He said the names of two other people who had died. Hillman’s name hadn’t been published, until just now, here. Both of the people he did name had been the subject of posthumous news reporting.

And the medical examiner said they identified Hillman from her fingerprints. Because Rancifer’s not next-of-kin or a public official, he wouldn’t have been given any access at all to Hillman’s remains. The medical examiner’s office has no record of Rancifer “helping” at all.

Why bother writing this, you might ask?

Rather than observe and report about the concerns of “advocates” dispassionately, the reporter — and the AJC — has accepted Rancifer’s narrative unchallenged, and provided cover by anonymous sourcing of commentary.

“But despite the bitter chill, not everyone is eager to accept the help and move inside,” the AJC wrote in another ninja-edited paragraph. “With the city’s panhandling ordinances in place, advocates (emphasis mine) worry the city’s homeless could end up in jail rather than in a shelter. And with Atlanta hosting the Super Bowl in three weeks, bringing as many as 1 million people to town, police anticipate more complaints about homeless people, according to Sgt. John Chafee.”

Some number of vulnerable people succumb to cold weather every year. Most are over 50. About half have other serious medical conditions like alcoholism, drug problems or dementia. Of the four deaths so far this season, three were known to be homeless. One died of hypothermia aggravating ischemic cardiovascular disease.

The warming stations appear to be working to reduce the number of deaths. We’ve had warm weather, but even accounting for that, we’re having fewer cold-weather deaths now than previous years … including the years Peachtree and Pine was open.

The problem isn’t capacity. It’s service resistance. On the night of December 9, Partners for Home sent out a phalanx of social workers and outreach specialists to try to bring unsheltered people to warming stations. They engaged 127 people, she said. Only nine came with them or accepted transportation.

An accurate and honest assessment might conclude that at best Peachtree and Pine had no statistical effect on the number of hypothermia fatalities in Atlanta. It’s entirely possible that closing it will end up reducing the death rate, as people experiencing chronic homelessness shed their service resistance from experiences at that shelter.

It’s too soon to say. We need more data.

The suggestion that the warming stations aren’t working, however, creates a risk — that people will choose to stay out in the cold and not bother approaching a warming center at all. The story has been shared hundreds of times through social media, and yes, homeless people read. Word gets around. If people experiencing homelessness accept the AJC’s reporting as is stands, perversely, that would contribute to an increase in injuries and deaths.

It has to be challenged. 

The AJC responded to an inquiry about this story this afternoon.

“Yesterday, we did post a story that wasn’t sourced properly and hadn’t been thoroughly vetted,” wrote Shannon McCaffrey, senior editor for crime and public safety. “Once we realized the error – through your Facebook post – we edited the story so that it adhered to our standards.

“You should know that we are planning to move a story today that does cite named and official sources regarding the incident in question.

“As always, our goal is to report information accurately. If we get something wrong we work to correct it, as we did here. In the future, you should feel free to reach out directly to either the reporter in question or the editor. We can only fix something if we are aware of it.”

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Dave Bearsechamblee54 Recent comment authors
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This is a disturbing piece.

Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

Your efforts investigating, increasing press standards, and detailing it here appreciated. Falsehood allowed as fact becomes more damaging when exposed.

I hope that arm is or has fully healed.