A Georgia legislative panel will examine how to regulate homeless encampments following a failed bill that would have criminalized people sleeping on public property and push cities to enforce new laws against so-called urban camping. In this 2015 file photo, a group of people warm up around a fire at a homeless encampment that was removed the following year.

A Georgia legislative panel will examine how to regulate homeless encampments following a failed bill that would have criminalized people sleeping on public property and push cities to enforce new laws against so-called urban camping. In this 2015 file photo, a group of people warm up around a fire at a homeless encampment that was removed the following year.

Credit: Photo contributed by Joshua Silavent

Gainesville’s prolific chicken processing facilities contribute to a low unemployment rate in the northeast Georgia community.

But with many factory workers unable to afford rent and other bills, the Hall County city is also a microcosm of the homelessness crisis in Georgia and throughout the nation.

When resources dry up and affordable housing becomes harder to pay for with working-class jobs, government leaders and organizations grapple with policies that criminalize the homeless for sleeping under bridges or setting up camp in public spaces. Compounding the problem are a shortage of resources that are available for housing and mental and substance abuse treatment for long-term issues, a problem that worsened during the pandemic.

Gainesville’s small neighboring city 10 miles to the north, Lula, added criminal penalties aimed at people experiencing homelessness at its city council meeting Monday night by banning so-called urban camping. People who violate the ordinance could be fined up to $1,000 and be jailed for up to six months for camping in parks, roads, or bridges, a strategy critics say further criminalizes homelessness without working to fix the root causes.

Lula, home to about 3,000 people, is officially dealing with homelessness for the first time after locals complained of an increase in panhandling, public drunkenness, and people sleeping on public property.

Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin said the ordinance aims to address concerns about transient people while the city also works with social services organizations and churches to provide support for people experiencing homelessness.

“In fairness, it’s not one piece of a puzzle, It’s probably several and I think that’s the best way that the council has recognized to deal with it,” Bergin said prior to Monday’s meeting.

Since 2019, estimates show the homeless population around Hall and Gainesville skyrocketing six-fold.

Hall, with its miles of Lake Lanier shoreline, has a mix of well-off residents paired with a strong business community, but offset by an extremely poor population. That’s especially true in Gainesville, with a large number of Hispanic immigrants and Black population, according to Joshua Silavent, an advocate who works closely with organizations that help the homeless.

In addition to the redevelopment around Gainesville’s downtown and midtown, new zoning laws led to the shuttering of several homeless shelters and missions, he said. 

Shooing away the encampments and throwing people in jail is not a good way to deal with homelessness, Silavent said.

“In a city that markets and prides itself on the availability of jobs, on the working class base, the diversity of our community, the city and county government as well as businesses have taken (few) meaningful approaches to addressing the issue of affordable housing,” Silavent said.

Through the end of 2022, a special state legislative committee is tasked with studying solutions for dealing with homeless encampments after the sponsor of controversial legislation scrapped a measure that initially called for state misdemeanor offenses for camping on public property and denying cities state grants for not enforcing the law.

Sen. Carden Summers said he decided to sponsor Senate Bill 535 after doing his own windshield survey around inner Atlanta and saw all of the makeshift tents set up by the homeless. 

The bill was modeled by Texas-based think tank Cicero Institute as a way to encourage cities and counties to create government-sanctioned encampments like parking lots, which proponents say offer a safer and more sanitary place to stay. 

Similar style developments have been set up in San Francisco and in Phoenix, Arizona, where the rapidly growing camping grounds that accommodate more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness have become more difficult to manage

Critics of those plans say local communities are better suited to determine any designated sites for camps or other facilities. 

Advocates for the unsheltered warn cutting off state funding from a city that has a higher per capita homeless population where local law enforcement is not enforcing existing ordinances could have long-term ramifications. 

“Our fear is that this is really more of a dog and pony show where they create or they give this purview to the state properties commission,” Silavent said.

Ultimately, objections to his bill led Summers to call for a committee to gather input from advocacy groups, government leaders, and others before making a recommendation on whether to proceed with his bill. The 2022 legislation died before the end of the just-completed session, so any revival would need to be reintroduced in 2023 or later.

Meanwhile, Hall and some other areas of Georgia are working to alleviate homelessness at the local level. A new partnership in Hall will help to get people their Social Security cards, ID cards, and other information needed to get a job and access other assistance. 

Also, the Hall County Commission recently committed federal stimulus funds to renovate a shelter, while outreach continues to push plans for warming-centers, camping areas, and tiny house villages for the unsheltered.

And in cities like Lula, city officials like Bergin expressing a desire to work with the advocacy organizations is a positive, Silavent said.

Homelessness rises since 2016

Figures are inexact on how many people are homeless. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that in January 2020, Georgia’s homeless population was 10,234.

For the first time since national data collection began in 2010, in 2020 there were more unsheltered people living on the streets or in cars than in shelters or other temporary housing, with families and children particularly affected.

This year, a federal agency plans to release a strategy to end homelessness. The plan will be developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Interagency Council on Homelessness, which after launching in 2010, saw homelessness decline nearly 10% overall and 30% among families before stalling in 2016.

“Not everyone agrees about the solutions, but we all recognize the problems and have the same goal: to prevent and end homelessness by providing people with safe and affordable housing, and the support needed to sustain that housing,” the council says on its website about the upcoming report.

In Macon-Bibb County, the collaboration among agencies includes organizations like Daybreak Resource Center, which provides showers, laundry and breakfast, case manager and a medical clinic while the Salvation Army provides an overnight shelter and rehabilitation services and the county in 2021 opened a warming shelter. 

But more resources must be dedicated to more than just housing. Making a significant dent in chronic homelessness will involve significant community resources dealing with untreated mental illness, homeless advocacy experts said.

The director of Daybreak, Sister Theresa Sullivan, said that long-term supportive case management will better keep roofs over heads and people employed, rather than plans that force them to find another place outside to sleep or risk going to jail. 

“You can close down encampments but you’re really just moving the problem,” Sullivan said. “Our people are nomadic and they’re pretty skillful so if we do not address the housing, if we do not address the mental illness and the care, you are just going to move the problem around. 

“And we have seen that here where we’ve closed one site, they moved to another and the challenges that they provide at one site are now the challenges in another,” Sullivan said.

In late-March, Athens-Clarke County opened an encampment outside of a former school after partnering with a local nonprofit to carry out the project.

Mayor Kelly Girtz said local officials aim for Athens-Clarke County to become a statewide model with a crisis response team that combines police officers with mental and behavioral health specialists. 

They are also working with a homeless coalition on developing plans for case management and  housing, efforts that will complement the additional funds spearheaded by Republican state House Speaker David Ralston and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

“I am heartened that after years in which Athens was the only homeless service provider between Atlanta and Greenville, that Gwinnett County has opened bed space for unsheltered persons this year, and other neighboring counties have shown similar interest, as they recognize the stress felt by family members in their own jurisdictions,” Girtz said in his March 21 state of the county address. 

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.