March 5, 2023

Georgia lawmakers offer both punitive and safety net approaches to tackling homelessness

The lead sponsors of HB 520 are Rep. Todd Jones, a South Forsyth Republican, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat. The representatives say this is a full-circle solution for Georgia’s workforce issue; by not only bringing in more physicians, but also getting people the help they need in order to find employment and build a sustainable and independent life.

By Aaleah McConnell, Georgia Recorder

More than 10,000 Georgians experience homelessness, according to a 2022 report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And one-third of Georgia’s unhoused population is in metro Atlanta, said Partners for Home CEO Cathryn Vassell.

Each January, Partners for Home conducts its Point in Time Count, where hundreds of volunteers fan out to take a headcount of Georgians who camp out on streets, train stations and in creeks during the night. People are also counted during daylight hours as they come to resource centers to get a free meal, collect their mail, and take a shower.

Vassell said focusing the count in the Atlanta area helps not just case workers, but also state lawmakers gauge what legislation would be most effective in tackling the issue of homelessness. But no matter how well-intentioned some of these policies aim to be, they continue to miss the mark by failing to capture nuance, she said.

“There have been prior bills in the last two legislative sessions around criminalization of homelessness. And so we’re very concerned about legislation like that, because we don’t want to invest dollars in managing homelessness, we want to invest dollars in ending people’s homelessness. And we believe housing does that,” Vassell said.

Republican lawmakers are pushing one bill that takes a more punitive approach, Senate Bill 62, which passed the Senate just ahead of Crossover Day with a majority vote. Advocates for the homeless say it will not tackle the underlying causes of homelessness.

Under this law, cities that currently run government-sanctioned encampments are required to confine their homeless population to designated spaces. Local officials who fail to comply could face legal action from the Georgia Attorney General or a private citizen. And it does not include a cap on the number of times a person can file a suit against their city for allowing people to camp in undesignated public spaces, like under bridges or in parks.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican, said his proposed law would also mandate an audit on state and local spending on resources distributed to nonprofits to assist the unhoused population across the state.

“There are literally millions of dollars being put  in 401 and 501(c)3 programs out there and they have no accountability to anybody,” Summers said.

In the long run, these audits would provide data points on the performance of these programs and provide a long view of how best to use federal and state funds to solve the issue of homelessness – not just in the state’s metro areas, but the rural ones as well. And the audits would assist those trained to treat unsheltered individuals dealing with mental health issues, Summers said.

Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Grayson Democrat, voted against Summers’ bill. She cited conclusions reached by last year’s Senate Study Committee on Unsheltered Homelessness, which Summers chaired.

One of the recommendations that emerged from the study committee is to “oppose the criminalization of homelessness.” However, law enforcement would be allowed to make arrests based on existing laws regardless of housing status.

“Rather than applying the recommendations of that committee, we came with a bill that resorted in prosecuting one of the most vulnerable and least supported populations in our state,” Merritt said.

The bill should include guaranteed or affordable housing, rental assistance, eviction protection, and mental health treatment – otherwise it does not reflect better solutions, Merritt said.

Carden’s bill also drew opposition from Sen. Nabilah Islam, a Lawrenceville Democrat, who says the proposal is an unnecessary criminalization of the homeless.

“This is not a perfect solution or a perfect bill,” Summer said. “This is a start at trying to come up with a solution to make it better.”

Vassell and other nonprofit advocates for Georgia’s homeless worry Carden’s legislation could pose a threat to unhoused people struggling with mental illness, addiction or both. Sister Theresa Sullivan, director of the Daybreak Day Resource Center in Macon, said unless there is adequate security and supervision, these government-sanctioned urban-camps could deliver unintended consequences.

“What do you say? Okay, Johnny, you just whacked Fannie, you’re out. And then you still have the problem of someone being on the street. Some of our people know that they aren’t able to be around other people. [They say] I do not have the capacity to wait in line for 30 minutes because I have a paranoid ideation, or I get really nervous,” Sullivan said.

“If you’re going to concentrate people [in tent cities], you really need to say, what is your oversight going to be? What social services are you going to do? Are you pulling together and solving challenges,”  Sullivan said.

Now the Senate shifts its focus on unsheltered Georgians to House Bill 520, which passed the other chamber with overwhelming support last week. The bill aims to bolster the Mental Health Parity Act by creating a study that would observe how often mental illness and addiction play a role in homelessness, and develop a standard definition of what “severe mental illness” means.

The bill also aims to make the process of obtaining a license easier for foreign-born, mental health physicians so they can set up practice in Georgia.

The lead sponsors of HB 520 are Rep. Todd Jones, a South Forsyth Republican, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat. The representatives say this is a full-circle solution for Georgia’s workforce issue; by not only bringing in more physicians, but also getting people the help they need in order to find employment and build a sustainable and independent life.

“When you start to combine mental health and substance abuse, the statistics tell us circa, 70% to 80% of every Georgia family is grappling with an individual within that family that’s suffering from either one and most of the time both,” said Jones.

“I think the final piece of the puzzle really does come down to how it is that we are handling serious mental illness. And then how is it that we handle that population? Many people, including (Georgia Supreme Court) Chief Justice Boggs, call that ‘familiar faces,’” said Jones, “And those familiar faces basically go either clockwise or counterclockwise, from homelessness, to our health care system, to the Department of Corrections/law enforcement, which would mean jails and things like that.”

The legislation focused on treatment includes a provision that would work more directly to decrease the number of unhoused people in the state.

“We’re expanding crisis beds which are essential to begin the process of getting some place permanent, or at least temporarily housed off the streets, or outside the crisis units,” Oliver said. “And we also have a work plan in 520 about homeless support issues.”

Even for people who struggle to keep a roof overhead who don’t suffer from mental health ailments or addiction, maintaining a permanent home can be a long and arduous process.

Looking back, how could these legislative approaches have helped Bambi Hayes Brown out of her seven-year stint of homelessness after the economy tanked in the 2008 housing crisis.

Even with a job and a college degree, it was a struggle finding permanent housing, Brown said. She and her children spent that time living in her car, suffering cold nights in shoddy shotgun-apartments and living in hotels.

Now people who once held stable employment are still facing housing instability after the pandemic disrupted their lives, said Brown who now serves as CEO of Georgia Advancing Communities Together – a statewide affordable housing nonprofit.

“We began seeing medical doctors, dentists, all the people who you would think wouldn’t have these housing challenges,” Brown said, “And so, more and more people began to say, ‘Oh, now this is a problem. We need to do something about it.’ Even though those of us who are advocates have been talking about it for years.”