Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican, talks about her bill dealing with homelessness in Georgia on the second to last day of the 2023 legislative session. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder
Lawmakers backed a plan Monday that proponents call a necessary first step toward better understanding persistent homelessness, which out-of-town legislators get an up-close view of while in downtown Atlanta for the three-month session.
But critics argue the Senate bill steps on the authority of the local officials grappling with the complicated issue in their communities and say it will indirectly criminalize homelessness and poverty.
The bill passed with a 99-to-76 vote that largely fell along party lines after a lengthy and emotional debate about how best to compassionately address homelessness. The Senate then gave it final passage late Monday with a 36-to-20 vote that included a few Democrats, sending it to the governor’s desk.
“When I come here from Rome and I get off of the interstate, I can always count on someone coming up to my car and asking me for money,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “They’re not always very nice about it either. I’ve had my car scratched. I’ve had them jump on it.”
Dempsey says the bill is meant as a start.
The measure requires the state auditor to inspect how public funding allocated to help unsheltered Georgians is spent statewide. Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat who served on a Senate study committee that explored homelessness last year, tried unsuccessfully to strip the bill down to just the audit, which she says has the support of nonprofits as well as lawmakers from both parties.
“I strongly encourage you, let’s be deliberative,” Jackson said to her colleagues Monday night. “Once we have a full audit, then we can make some calculated and important choices and decisions about how to best use that money.”
It would also bar hospitals and local authorities from dropping people off in another county, unless the individual previously resided there or arrangements were made with another organization.
And the proposal gives the state attorney general the authority to step in if local officials try to block the enforcement of ordinances prohibiting unauthorized public camping, sleeping, or obstruction of sidewalks – if they have those laws on the books. Those cities and counties could then be ordered to reimburse the state for any costs incurred.
Dempsey, who oversees the human resources spending on the House Appropriations Committee, said she is troubled by reports of beds going unoccupied at shelters, particularly in Atlanta.
“We should not have cities who are looking away as people choose – or feel they must – find different places to put their head every night,” she said.
But Democrats argued the proposal takes the wrong approach and will pressure cities and counties to step up enforcement of their ordinances, which they say amounts to criminalizing homelessness.
“At the end of the day, if you know that the attorney general is going to step in and prosecute a case that they believe you should have prosecuted and you don’t want to spend the money on that, you’re going to be incentivized to prosecute that case,” said Rep. Ruwa Romman, a Duluth Democrat.
Rep. Roger Bruce, an Atlanta Democrat, called it “just another hate-filled bill” during Monday’s debate.
“People don’t like to just be candid, but you got to be candid: It’s a hate-filled bill, a bill to punish people for helping people who need help. That is mean. That’s just not the right spirit for any of us here,” Bruce said.
Stacey Evans, an Atlanta Democrat, told her colleagues their focus was misplaced and that lawmakers should instead be focused on the issues underlying homelessness that can be tackled on the state level.
“If you want to do something about the city of Atlanta’s homelessness situation, how about you move your butt to Atlanta and run for office?” Evans said.
Rep. John LaHood, a Valdosta Republican who chaired the committee that advanced the measure, countered that the bill – particularly the audit – would help give lawmakers more clarity moving forward. But he justified the other parts as also being necessary.
“We want to be sure that the cities in this state don’t become like Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, where we encourage people to sleep on the street. Let’s do something about it,” LaHood said. “We’re not criminalizing poverty. We’re looking for solutions.”
The proposal emerged from a multiyear effort pushed by state Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican who chaired a study committee on homelessness last year and who is the Senate sponsor.
The bill aims to decrease the number of homeless people sleeping on the street and help them find safety in a shelter or a mental health facility, if needed, Summers said. But the south Georgia Republican sparked controversy last session when he first floated a proposal to impose misdemeanor offenses for camping on public property.
The House also passed a bill designed to build on last year’s major mental health bill, but that appears stalled in the Senate.
‘Georgia is no longer affordable’
A handful of advocates lined up to testify at a recent subcommittee meeting, and many said they welcome the audits.
“We welcome any audits, and we would all support making sure that we’re spending money in an effective way,” Brad Schweers, the executive director of Intown Collaborative Ministries said.
But the advocates at the hearing said policymakers should focus more on proven methods that help homeless people find affordable housing, especially in cities like Atlanta where rent skyrockets each year.
Like Intown Collaborative Ministries’ LIFT 1.0 program, which has helped about 450 people find affordable housing. Tracy Woodard, a case manager at Intown Collaborative Ministries, says much of the funding they received this year will be put toward LIFT 2.0.
“Unfortunately, the biggest barrier is the lack of affordable housing, Georgia is no longer affordable.” Woodard said, “Before the pandemic, I could take my clients and find places for them that were about $500 a month, which you can do if you’re on Social Security benefits. That has completely changed.”
“I can go down all the way to McDonough and I can’t find anything, I can’t find a rented room for less than $800 a month. So affordable housing is our biggest barrier,” Woodard said.
Daniel Page is a Georgia citizen who said he experienced homelessness after being hospitalized from 2014 to 2015 for infections of his diabetic ulcers. Page is one of Woodard’s clients and he testified at the hearing on how the LIFT 1.0 program helped him find a permanent home.
“I was able to get by and exist. It took several years until I found, you know, permanent housing. And what helped me with the permanent housing was kind of what used to be called Section 8,” Page said, “You pay 30% of your security check for housing, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. And I’m able to live doing that.”
Cathryn Vassell, CEO of the nonprofit Partners for Home – an Atlanta-based non-profit in the Homeless continuum of care – was amongst the string of advocates.
Vassell said much of the funding her organization receives comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the tune of about $10 million. And most of that is allocated to sustain permanent housing options, especially for people with disabilities who need their income subsidized.
“So that 10 million goes to support permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing. And that funds about 1000 units of housing for individuals. And as people move out of that housing, we replace or fill those units as people move out with people who are currently homeless.”
Summers said that the audits could help boost funding for homelessness, especially in rural communities.
“Homelessness is not indigenous to Atlanta, it’s everywhere. And we’re dealing with it in our community. And we had cities and counties, representatives, commissioners come up to testify that they’re not getting any funding. In Ben Hill County, in Irwin County, in Coffee County and Valdosta they need help.”
Dempsey framed this year’s bill as a path toward other potential state-level changes, such as changing the minimum wage.
“Supportive housing is the No. 1 thing we have, but we cannot afford to have enough supportive housing opportunities for all of the homeless people in our state,” Dempsey said. “So what are the steps we can do to understand who they are, where they are, what their needs are?”
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