Growing homelessness in state tied to lack of affordable housing

A few people warm up around a fire at a homeless encampment in Gainesville in December 2015. The encampment was removed in 2016. Photo contributed by Joshua Silavent

The number of people experiencing homelessness across Georgia has increased slightly since the last time a head count was attempted, with advocates and service providers in one north Georgia community blaming a shrinking supply of affordable housing.

A statewide report that is focused on the state’s rural and suburban counties showed a 13% increase in the homeless population from two years ago, according to a report from the state Department of Community Affairs released last month.

In Hall County, home to Gainesville, where tension is growing over a proposal that advocates say could put more people on the street, the homeless population has more than doubled since the count was done four years ago.

The city known as “Poultry Capital of the World” has several homeless shelters and other resources for the economically downtrodden and still struggles to meet the need. And some warn that a proposal to tighten up rules for extended stay hotels will only exacerbate the problem.

“They have tried to push them out,” said Jerry Deyton, a pastor at a day center called The Way. “Tried to get them out from under the bridges, off the streets, out of tents, tore down the housing, and now they’re trying to push them out of motels.

“But these people won’t go nowhere,” Deyton said. “These people are the poor people of this community, and we’ve got to help them.”

The unsettled issue represents the tension that exists in this growing city just an hour northeast of Atlanta that’s been around for nearly two centuries.

Gainesville’s city manager, Bryan Lackey, acknowledged the challenge but said city officials are not trying push the homeless out of the area. Rather, he said the proposed regulations are designed to address older hotels that have become extended stay hotels but aren’t up to code or lack certain features, like kitchens.

A limit on how long people can stay at these facilities – a rule that is already on the books – prompted much of the concern. But Lackey says the city has never enforced the 30-day limit and doesn’t plan to start. Rather, Lackey said the city will only respond to complaints received.

“We didn’t enact this to drive people who are less fortunate from our city,” Lackey said. “We know they’re here. We know that those facilities are serving a need for long-term, temporary housing. But it’s to make sure they’re living in safe conditions. We were concerned about their welfare, so there’s no intent whatsoever to do that,” he said.

Lackey also said some revisions – including exceptions to the 30-day rule – are being drafted now to address community concerns before the City Council votes on the zoning changes later this month. And if a unit is ever deemed uninhabitable, Lackey vowed to work with local nonprofits to help the displaced tenant find alternative housing.

“We are not looking to kick them to the curb,” Lackey said. “That just makes the problem worse if we do that.”

Expanding need, declining housing options

Advocates and observers caution that the biennial effort to enumerate the state’s homeless population on a single night shouldn’t be viewed as an exact head count of those lacking a home address.

Even with the steps made to refine the count, some advocates say the true homeless population is likely larger than the report indicates. For example, the federal definition used to determine who is counted leaves out people staying in a hotel if they were paying their own way.

But the federally required count can still provide insights into larger trends within this vulnerable population of Georgians. For example, this year’s report acknowledged the need for a plan that addresses racial disparities in the current system, and DCA is on track to implement such a plan next year.

This year’s report also shows that even with the increase in the homeless population this year, Georgia is still far removed from post-recession numbers seen nearly a decade ago when the population swelled to more than 11,000 people – a number that does not include urban areas.

A person sleeps on a decorative sidewalk outside a building in downtown Atlanta on Nov. 26, 2019, when temperatures dropped to near freezing. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

This year’s count, which was done on a cold January night, identified nearly 4,200 people in 152 counties, with a little more than half of them living out on the streets or “unsheltered.” The state’s report does not capture urban areas, which do their own count. Atlanta, for example, identified another 3,200 people this year, with about one-quarter of them lacking shelter.

Michael Thomas, who is DCA’s continuum of care program coordinator, noted that Georgia’s increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness mirrors national trends over the last couple years. Thomas also partly attributed the bump here to improvements made in the way the count is done in Georgia, which may give a more accurate picture.

But Thomas also said he is hearing reports from local service providers that the availability of affordable housing is causing a strain.

“Based on the feedback that we’ve gotten from our providers who are trying to place people in permanent housing in our 152 counties, I think it’s safe to say affordable housing is an issue statewide,” Thomas said.

Back in Gainesville, Mike Fisher sees the shrinking supply of low-income housing options firsthand. Fisher, who is the housing program manager for the Ninth District Opportunity, said these more affordable units are being replaced with higher end living quarters, making it tougher to stretch the group’s housing vouchers far enough.

The organization, which offers housing vouchers, utility payments assistance and other services, is one of several nonprofits clustered in a redeveloping part of Gainesville called Midtown.

“I don’t want to say we’re losing hope, but it’s making the challenge greater and greater every day when we see the writing on the wall as far as direction and the need that it’s expanding and the resources – the low-income housing and all that – that are declining,” Fisher said.

“You don’t have to be a genius to kind of understand where that’s going to collide,” he said.

In Hall County, which is home to Gainesville, the report put the local homeless population at 149 people – up sharply from 61 people in 2015. About 62% of them had found some kind of shelter on the night of the count.

“I think the quantity of these resources speaks to the good character of our community,” said Joshua Silavent, who participated in Hall County’s homeless count and who works as a paraprofessional in the school system.

“However, the issue is growing so exponentially that even with the amazing amount of resources that we have, there’s just no way we can keep up,” Silavent said. “We just simply can’t keep up with the demand right now.”