A bill in the Georgia Senate would ban local governments from using federal dollars to build permanent housing for homeless individuals and further financially penalize cities that have a higher-than-average homeless population.
It would also make it a misdemeanor to take shelter on state property.
Proponents of the “Reducing Street Homelessness Act” claim that the bill seeks to reduce the number of homeless individuals on the streets in Georgia — particularly 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’s another bill in a series of attacks on Atlanta by lawmakers who don’t represent the area.
Cordele Republican Sen. Carden Summers opened a hearing on the bill on Thursday by talking about his experience in Atlanta during the legislative session.
“When you ride down a road in Atlanta, anywhere within a two-mile radius of this Capitol, homelessness is out of control,” he said. “I’ve made a point to ride around almost every night, take 30 minutes and just drive a different route and count the homeless people on the street, living in the corners, living on the edges, living on the sidewalks, living under bridges.”
Summers said the bill is about holding cities “accountable” for addressing the homeless crisis within their borders by cutting off funds.
Effective July 1, 2023, as written in the bill, any city with a per capita population of homeless individuals higher than the statewide average would be ineligible for some state grants until the number is reduced.
Nonprofits working within the city would also be exempt from grants or tax credits.
The legislation is being pushed by Texas-based policy nonprofit, Cicero Action. Members of the organization said cities and nonprofits should be held accountable for moving homeless individuals off the streets quickly.
“They should focus on short-term, service-provided shelters for people who are in crisis and not try to give every individual on the streets a free and indefinite home because that will not solve homelessness,” said Judge Glock with Cicero.
Stone Mountain Democrat Sen. Kim Jackson told GPB News that the legislation takes direct aim at Georgia’s Capital city.
“It targets Atlanta and it has targeted Atlanta by people who don’t even live in Atlanta,” she said.
The city of Atlanta testified against the bill in committee, making the case that recently elected Mayor Andre Dickens needs time to address the problem as it relates to Georgia’s largest city.
“The mayor has been mayor for 57 days,” said Kenyatta Mitchell, director of intergovernmental affairs for the city. “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 a few weeks, she said, the city partnered with nonprofits to place individuals within hotels and shelters. Mitchell said limiting the types of housing — like permanent housing solutions — that cities can use hinders similar efforts.
“When we start taking things off the table, it’s very difficult for us to come to a solution,” she said. “There are many very innovative solutions across the country where they use different options — whether it be permanent or temporary housing — that work. Each person is different; we have to come to whatever solution where you can help as many people as possible.”
Cathryn Marchman, CEO of Partners for Home, a coalition of government and nonprofit stakeholders focused on homelessness, said that while permanent housing is not the only solution to homelessness, it is one of the most successful solutions.
“If you look at the cost analysis, the cost-benefit analysis of placing somebody in supportive housing, actually ending their homelessness, which is the end goal,” she said. “We want that in our outcome because if we get somebody into housing, we have in fact then ended the problem of homelessness.”
She said that overall numbers of homeless individuals in Atlanta have actually reduced by 25% since 2015 — although there was a small increase from 2019 to 2020.
“During COVID, we aligned a tremendous amount of federal and public and private resources $24 million to create a non-congregate shelter hotel to move people quickly off the street,” she said.
From that effort, she said, organizations were able to set up about 700 permanent households.
Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Christopher Nunn testified to lawmakers that the legislation is “financially risky” for the state. He warned that there’s a potential that federal COVID relief funds may be revoked if lawmakers ban certain housing solutions.
Atlanta Attorney Elizabeth Appley said that the legislation would also hurt the state’s progress in meeting requirements in a long-standing settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2010, the federal government ordered the state to establish community-based services and housing for about 9,000 people with mental illness who, advocates say, cycle through the health care and criminal justice systems.
The legislation could mean less federal funds toward the state housing voucher program, she said, which would be contrary to the efforts of the settlement.
“We’re now serving fewer 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 pointed out that criminalizing Georgia’s homeless population, many who suffer mental illness, is a stark contrast to lawmakers’ pledge this session to bolster mental health services — like House Speaker David Ralston’s comprehensive reform effort.
The bill makes it a misdemeanor to set up shelter on government-owned property — after first receiving a citation. It also requires law enforcement officers to be part of “outreach teams” when moving homeless individuals out of prohibited areas.
Jackson, who runs a church exclusively for people experiencing homelessness, said that the population already harbors a large amount of distrust for law enforcement.
Sending them to jail also does not help, Jackson added.
“It only results in sending them deeper into poverty, making it even more difficult for them to get jobs when they are ready to get jobs,” 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 on Thursday.
This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.