Randy Bedingfield plays the piano in a corner of the Daybreak Homeless Day Center in Macon in 2022. Daybreak is privately fun

Randy Bedingfield plays the piano during a November reception at the Daybreak Day Center, which offers an array of services to the unhoused in Macon. Daybreak is privately funded but a Georgia Senate bill would audit public funds spent on such services.

Credit: Grant Blankenship/GPB

In June of 2021, a nonprofit organization in Macon tasked with providing housing aid flagged a potential conflict of interest with the federal government. 

The Macon-Bibb Economic Opportunity Council (EOC), a private nonprofit that receives between $250,000 and $300,000 annually for housing support, had received a request for $2,850 in housing assistance. 

In a note to the Atlanta office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an EOC program manager noted that the woman requesting the assistance was the daughter-in-law of state Sen. David Lucas and Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas. 

The Lucases were buying the woman a home and she wanted federal housing aid to give her the $1,900 deposit and $950 first month’s rent she was going to owe her in-laws, according to a partially redacted letter obtained by GPB News in an open records request.

The federal housing official decided there was no conflict of interest, and the woman did not end up receiving the rental assistance after leaving the program. Carlton Williams, who manages housing aid at the Macon-Bibb EOC, said the back and forth on the way to the eventual greenlight from HUD took so long that the applicant found help some other way.

It’s an example of the often opaque world of housing aid, where — despite a growing number of people desperate for homes who struggle for access — federal, state and local governments and nonprofits struggle to get aid where it needs to go. 


Tracking money spent on homeless services

The state senate passed Senate Bill 62 Thursday night, which calls for a state audit of public money spent by nonprofits on homeless services. 

State Sen. David Lucas was one of only seven “nay” votes on SB 62. 

“What does an audit do in terms of direct effect to someone who is living on the street?” Lucas said. “I voted against it because they need to get off their behinds and fix the system to give folks housing.”

In its original form, Senate Bill 62 included language which would have provided for state-sanctioned, tent-based shelters for homeless people around the state, as well as sections setting up a path for civil suits against municipalities that don’t enforce their ordinances against camping by homeless people. 

By the time the vote on SB 62 came, the tent shelter provision was completely removed and the protections for no camping ordinances were dramatically weakened. What remained was the call for the state audit of public money spent by nonprofits on homeless services. 

Jake Hall is the executive director of United to End Homelessness, an arm of the Macon-based United Way of Central Georgia. He said he was never for the now-moot tent shelter idea, but he said he’s behind an audit as he tries to understand the local landscape of service providers in his still-new job. 

“I do think an asset map of where service dollars are going is an important thing,” Hall said. “That due diligence happens because there is always geographic equity in how these funds are disbursed in any state.”

In Georgia’s largest cities, that spending is already easy to see. Atlanta, Athens, Augusta and Columbus all have an organization called a “continuum of care.” A CoC is an organization of homeless service providers working under one leader and communicating with the federal housing department. 

Part of being a CoC is transparency about how you spend money and what the spending accomplishes. Groups such as Atlanta’s Partner for Home already publish data in deep detail online. For other CoCs, the data is accessible via a HUD portal.

A map of the Georgia Balance of State Continuum of Care

A map of the Georgia Balance of State Continuum of Care

Credit: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development

Where transparency may fall short in Georgia is in communities that don’t have their own relationship with HUD. 

Those places are often members of Georgia’s Balance of State Continuum of Care, which means information about the efficacy of homeless programs from essentially the entire state gets balled up into a single HUD report, making it tough to tease out the cause and effect of local actors in any single town. 

That’s the case in Macon. There, the private nonprofit Macon-Bibb Economic Opportunity Council contends that, as a non-governmental actor, it does not have to share program data with the public.

But reports made from the Macon-Bibb EOC to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and, ultimately, to HUD acquired through open record requests, suggest the group has only provided Rapid Rehousing aid to about 10 chronically homeless people — those commonly thought of as “street homeless" — since 2016. More typically, that aid goes to people recently evicted, often single mothers with children. Even then, the aid falls short of some estimates of need. 

Lucas said none of it — neither the lack of transparency from a local nonprofit nor the way his position might have influenced the flow of money — adds up to his seeing a need for state audits of service providers as described in SB 62. And he doesn’t care how others may see it. 

“I don't care how it looks,” Lucas said. “My books are open. I pay taxes.”

Jake Hall of United to End Homelessness said there are other ideas he would prefer to see in a piece of legislation aimed at helping people without a place to call their own. 

“What is needed is a direct and earnest interest in critical housing supply and not simply removing vulnerable populations from sight,” Hall said. 

One of the recommendations in the Senate study committee report which preceded SB 62 was to increase state spending on housing options for the homeless. No version of the bill has yet included such a provision. 

SB 62 now heads to the Georgia House.