A bill in the Georgia Senate would prohibit local governments from using federal dollars to build permanent housing for the homeless and would further financially penalize cities that have above-average homeless populations.
It would also be an offense to take refuge on state property.
The supporters of the “Street Homelessness Reduction Act” say the bill aims to reduce the number of homeless people on Georgia’s streets — especially in its metropolitan cities — by pressuring local governments to take more action.
But critics say it punishes nonprofits for their work and criminalizes an extremely vulnerable population. Opponents also say it is another bill in a series of attacks on Atlanta by lawmakers who do not represent the region.
Republican Cordele Sen. Carden Summers opened a hearing on the bill Thursday by speaking about his experience in Atlanta during the legislative session.
“When you’re driving down a road in Atlanta, anywhere within two miles of this Capitol, the roaming is out of control,” he said. “I made it a point to ride almost every night, take 30 minutes and take a different route and count the homeless on the streets, living on the corners, living on the edges, living on the sidewalks, living under bridges. ”
Summers said the bill seeks to hold cities “accountable” for solving the homelessness crisis within their borders by cutting funding.
Beginning July 1, 2023, as outlined in the bill, any city with a per capita homeless population above the state average would not be eligible for certain state grants until that the number is reduced.
Non-profit organizations working in the city would also be exempt from grants or tax credits.
The legislation is being pushed by Cicero Action, a Texas-based nonprofit. Members of the organization said cities and nonprofits should be held accountable for quickly removing homeless people from the streets.
“They should focus on short-term shelter provided by services for people in crisis and not try to give every person on the street free, indefinite accommodation, as that will not solve homelessness,” said Judge Glock with Cicero.
Stone Mountain Democratic Senator Kim Jackson told GPB News that the legislation was aimed directly at Georgia’s capital.
“He targets Atlanta and he targeted Atlanta by people who don’t even live in Atlanta,” she said.
The city of Atlanta testified against the bill in committee, arguing that recently elected mayor Andre Dickens needs time to resolve the issue as it relates to Georgia’s largest city.
“The mayor has been mayor for 57 days,” said Kenyatta Mitchell, the city’s director of intergovernmental affairs. “Please give us some time to clean this up.”
During an interview with GPB, Mitchell mentioned a recent effort to move dozens of people out of an encampment near the Capitol on Mitchell Street.
Within weeks, she said, the city partnered with nonprofits to place people in hotels and shelters. Mitchell said limiting the types of housing — like permanent housing solutions — cities can use hinders similar efforts.
“When we start taking things off the table, it’s very difficult for us to find a solution,” she said. “There are a lot of very innovative solutions across the country where they’re using different options – whether it’s permanent or temporary housing – that works. Each person is different; we need to find the solution that will allow you to help as many people as possible. »
Cathryn Marchman, CEO of Partners for Home, a coalition of government and nonprofit actors focused on homelessness, said that while permanent housing isn’t the only solution to homelessness, it’s the one of the most effective solutions.
“If you look at the cost analysis, the cost-benefit analysis of putting someone in supportive housing, ending their homelessness, which is the end goal,” she said. “We want that in our outcome because if we put someone in housing, we’ve actually ended the problem of homelessness.”
She said the total number of homeless people in Atlanta has actually decreased by 25% since 2015 – although there was a slight increase from 2019 to 2020.
“During COVID, we have aligned an enormous amount of federal and public and private resources of $24 million to create a non-congregate hotel-shelter to quickly move people off the streets,” she said.
Through this effort, she said, the organizations have been able to create about 700 permanent homes.
Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Christopher Nunn testified before lawmakers that the legislation was “financially risky” for the state. He warned that federal COVID relief funds may be revoked if lawmakers ban certain housing solutions.
Atlanta attorney Elizabeth Appley said the legislation would also hurt the state’s progress in meeting the requirements of a longstanding agreement with the US Department of Justice.
In 2010, the federal government ordered the state to set up community services and housing for about 9,000 people with mental illness who advocates say are going through the health care and criminal justice systems.
The legislation could mean less federal funds for the state’s housing voucher program, she said, which would run counter to the settlement’s efforts.
“We now serve less than 2,000 people through the House State Housing Voucher Program,” she said. “The obligation under the settlement agreement is to fund and provide services to 9,000 people.”
Opponents have pointed out that the criminalization of Georgia’s homeless population, many of whom suffer from mental illness, stands in stark contrast to lawmakers’ commitment this session to strengthen mental health services — like the president’s comprehensive reform effort. of the House, David Ralston.
The bill makes it an offense to set up a shelter on government-owned property – after first receiving a citation. It also requires law enforcement officers to be part of “proximity teams” when moving homeless people out of no-go areas.
Jackson, who runs a church exclusively for homeless people, said the public already harbors a high level of distrust in law enforcement.
Sending them to jail doesn’t help either, Jackson added.
“It just pushes them deeper into poverty, making it even harder for them to get a job when they’re ready to find one,” she said. “It only complicates their lives more for us to criminalize this act of sleeping outside.”
The Senate Government Oversight Committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.
This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.