By Sean Keenan, Atlanta Civic Circle
Legislation awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature that cracks down on public camping by unhoused people doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness, Democratic political opponents and homeless service providers told Atlanta Civic Circle this week.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) said the proposal on Kemp’s desk is an “anti-homeless bill” that “criminalizes poverty” by attempting to reduce local governments’ discretion to prosecute or forgive people for violating urban camping laws.
If ratified, Senate Bill 62, would bar city and county governments from refusing to enforce laws against “unauthorized public camping, sleeping, or obstruction of sidewalks”—and prohibit police and prosecutors from doing the same. The bill is sponsored by 13 Republican senators, mostly from small towns, and is part of a national push against public camping promoted by the Cicero Institute, bankrolled by venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale.
The bill also prohibits hospitals and government agencies from transporting unhoused people after they’ve received treatment or other assistance to anywhere other than their official county of residency or to any place that does not want to accept them.
SB 62’s sponsors said the measure is a response to complaints from rural Georgians claiming hospitals were “dumping” people experiencing homelessness at businesses that did not expect them, according to the Associated Press.
“This doesn’t do anything in terms of reducing and ending homelessness,” said Cathryn Vassell, the head of Partners For Home, a nonprofit funded by the city of Atlanta that provides supportive services to people experiencing homelessness.
The average unhoused person doesn’t have an “official place of residency,” because they don’t have a driver’s license with an address, she pointed out, so the directive for hospitals to send people back to their home county is likely unenforceable.
In metro Atlanta, medical facilities like Grady Memorial Hospital downtown and Emory University Hospital on the eastside primarily serve homeless people who live in the area—in either Fulton or DeKalb Counties—so mandating people must be returned to their home county is a solution in search of a problem, she said.
“We have challenges with Grady, from time to time, dropping people off at shelters without warning,” Vassell said. “But we don’t have examples of hospitals dropping people off at, say, Cobb County for no reason.”
Jack Hardin, the board chair for the Gateway Center shelter downtown, said this type of legislation is typical of the Cicero Institute, which did not respond to a request for comment.
“Cicero is opposed to supportive housing and the housing-first strategy that has been widely endorsed by studies as the most cost-effective strategy to deal with unsheltered populations,” he said. The way to reduce the number of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks is to produce supportive housing, Hardin added.
The initial version of SB62 had provisions to provide sanctioned camping areas for people experiencing homelessness and to allocate residual federal COVID-19 relief funding for transitional housing, but those provisions didn’t make it into the final version of the bill.