A group of people warm up around a fire at a Gainesville encampment during winter months in 2015.

A group of people warm up around a fire at a Gainesville encampment during winter months in 2015. A Georgia Senate study committee heard from nonprofit and state agency leaders about ways to help Georgians experiencing homelessness — and potentially criminalize them.

Credit: Contributed by Joshua Silavent

A new state Senate study committee heard from nonprofit and state agencies at a daylong meeting across from the Capitol about a homelessness problem that’s been complicated by out-of-control housing costs, bureaucratic red tape and disagreements over the best ways to help.

Members of the Senate Study Committee on Unsheltered Homelessness say that they’ll take a multi-layered approach when they make their final report after being tasked with finding the best way to get rid all of the makeshift tents set up by the homeless around the downtown areas of Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah and other communities around the state.

State Sen. Carden Summers, who chairs the study committee, said the hearings will allow lawmakers to better incorporate input after he scrapped legislation during the 2022 legislative session that called for the state to impose misdemeanor offenses for camping on public property.

Thursday, Summers reiterated that his legislation was only intended to reflect what was already on the books and not to unduly punish people for not having a place to live.

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

In contrast, various homeless service providers and government initiatives are promoting permanent housing as a primary means of providing the necessary support for thousands of Georgians often dealing with addiction and mental illness.

Judge Glock, senior director of policy and research at Cicero, said that he is not opposed to permanent housing as a strategy, but that it’s not nearly effective enough to serve people coping with severe problems, including mental illness and substance abuse. He told the panel he supports expanding outpatient treatment and inpatient beds for people with mental and substance use disorders.

“I don’t understand why you can’t tie (permanent housing) with requirements to take medication or to improve,” Glock said. “The idea that we give someone a house and then require nothing from them, which again, the federal standards right now say you aren’t even allowed to set goals for people in the housing, that doesn’t seem to be a positive outcome for someone with a severe mental illness.”

Where there are readily available options, such as a police officer giving a warning and a referral, the result is usually that there are very few arrests because people understand there aren’t consequences, Glock said.

“The cities that actually enforce that, they say there is a criminal penalty at the end of the road but what that actually results in is people moving into those better situations, not mass arrests,” he said.

Sen. Randy Robertson, a Catula Republican, said that police officers are too busy to spend time looking for homeless people to harass or intimidate, but there are situations where police will have to use the threat of an arrest if someone camping out in front of a person’s business and refuses to leave. And sanctioned camping is one of the creative ideas that should be considered, Robertson added.

“Businesses have paid a lot of money for licensing and everything and he or she has a right to operate a business unencumbered by somebody who chooses their awning as their home,” he said.

From 2014 to 2019, Georgia’s homeless population dropped by half to about 10,400, with about 3,800 of people living on the street considered unsheltered, or the chronically homeless, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.

These numbers worsened during the pandemic, and the state is still waiting for the final figures for 2021 to know just by how much, according to DCA Commissioner Chris Nunn.

But the agency head in charge of emergency rental housing assistance and other housing programs said he believes the state can turn things around by increasing its investment in housing and supportive services, providing landlords with incentives to create more housing options, and fostering better collaboration between people experiencing homelessness and mental health service providers and government.

That message was echoed by nonprofits and state agencies.

It’s more important to empathize with the homeless rather than criminalize them, said Bambie Hayes-Brown, executive director of Georgia Advancing Communities Together.

A more pressing issue is the disconnect between the few groups that control millions of dollars in funding and the many organizations working on the ground. She suggested a comprehensive list of all the entities who provide services, larger nonprofits assisting smaller organizations with documentation and an independent periodic review of those agencies charged with administering government dollars.

“We need to know where to send families,” Hayes-Brown said. “But we don’t want to have families just going around in a circle.”

Last year, case managers, peer specialists and clinicians made more than 3,400 contacts through a state transitional housing program, while thousands of other interactions were made by other homeless outreach agencies, Maxwell Ruppersburg, director of supportive housing at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

By initiating more frequent communication between the state and voucher recipients, the agency was able to increase the voucher conversion rate last year from 37% to 50%. Rent in Georgia increased by 22% during that period, and home values increased by 26%.

In spite of that fact, there still are thousands still living without shelter in Georgia. People are stuck on a waiting list for a place with a voucher but are having trouble finding a place they can afford and an owner willing to accept their application.

The housing market in metro Atlanta lost 60,000 rental properties that had rents lower than $1,200 a month during the five years before the COVID-19 outbreak. Across the state, many Georgia cities saw tremendous housing price increases, pushing more people out of the affordable housing options that existed.

“If you talk to any one of those individuals on the ground, you’ll learn that the current housing shortage is very personal for anyone in this room,” Ruppersburg said. “It’s heartbreaking for me when I read the names of hundreds of individuals, Georgians, neighbors in my county who have a housing voucher from DBHDD but cannot use it due to the lack of available housing.”

But some of the latest data showing that homelessness is currently down 38% percent in Atlanta is considered outrageous by some housing advocates, said Cathryn Marchman-Vassell, CEO for Partners for Home, which brings together nonprofit, government, business and community leaders to provide services to people in greater Atlanta without shelter.

That figure incorporates the counts service providers are recording on a daily basis, she said. One successful approach emerged during the pandemic, she said, when homeless people moved from tent camps into a downtown Atlanta hotel.

People suffering from long-term disabilities and chronic mental health issues will have to rely on subsidies for the long term, Marchman-Vassell said.

“If I have a severe mental illness, for example, it is very difficult to get into mental health care to get back on my medication if I don’t have a roof over my head and if I don’t have somebody walking me through the process,” Marchman-Vassell said. “If I have an addiction, it is going to be difficult to get sober while living under a bridge.”

But the collaboration is also paying off with a permanent housing program, she said. Partners for Homes launched a local investment program that matched federal funding with private donations. Through a partnership with the Atlanta Housing Authority, the program has been able to obtain federal vouchers.

“When we’re struggling to entice landlords with a voucher, when we make it easy and we entice them in the right way, developers will want to do this work,” Marchman-Vassell. “But I think we have to make it easy for them. We brought the subsidy, the services. We didn’t force them to have to go scramble.”

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