On any given night over 10,000 Georgians are homeless. Georgia has made great strides in reducing that number over the past few years, but it is obvious that street, or “unsheltered,” homelessness has exploded in many of our cities and towns.

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Rep. Katie Dempsey

Why, even before the pandemic hit, has our state seen more homelessness on the streets? There are two main reasons. First, some cities have condoned or even enabled street sleeping, which has pulled more people into dangerous, illegal encampments. Second, our state and its cities spend most of their money seeking expensive permanent housing for a segment of homeless individuals, rather than providing the diverse services that many homeless people on the streets actually need.

A bill I authored in the legislature last session, HB 713, took aim at redirecting Georgia’s money to proven strategies that will improve our cities and the lives of homeless people. Georgia can provide more affordable shelter, services that actually work and help get people back off the streets, out of jail and into treatment.

One of the state’s biggest problems is that some cities such as Atlanta decided that condoning or ignoring street sleeping and camping is the most humane solution to homelessness. I know that it is not. In 2020, even before the coronavirus pandemic, Atlanta saw a 25% increase in street homelessness from just a year earlier, at a time when the city had over 600 unused shelter beds, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Since the pandemic, the problem has gotten worse. The same has happened in other cities that have relaxed bans on street sleeping. After Austin, Texas repealed its ban in 2019, the number of street homeless went up almost 50%, again before the pandemic, while those in shelters dropped by 20%.

Encouraging people to leave shelters for dangerous street encampments is bad for the homeless as a report from the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing demonstrates. These street camps have no sanitary facilities, leading to the accumulation of human waste and garbage. They are often sources of violence. After Austin repealed its camping ban, reports of violent crimes in which both the perpetrator and the victim were homeless increased by 15%. After Los Angeles ended its attempts to clean up its infamous Skid Row in 2014, homeless deaths more than doubled over the next seven years. Today, 1,400 homeless people die on the streets of LA every year.

HB 713 tried to put a stop to the growing and horrendous tragedy of street homelessness in Georgia. First, it would cut state homeless funds to cities that either cannot reduce street homelessness or that refuse to enforce bans on street camping. If a city is allowing shelter beds to sit unused while people are left on the streets, the state should not continue to subsidize it. Second, the bill allowed the state and the cities to create “structured camping facilities,” where homeless people resistant to shelter can live in their own tents, but with police protection, sanitation and services as have proven successful in Arizona, Texas and Douglas County in our own Georgia. Local cities have no excuse for allowing people to die on the streets when they have the option to dedicate cleaner and safer spaces for them.

The second failed policy which explains Georgia’s street homeless problem is the sole focus on giving permanent homes to homeless individuals, known as the “Housing First” model. The basic idea behind the model seems sensible. If a homeless person needs a house, why not just give them one, and allow them to keep it without any strings attached?

Yet, after a decade of experience with this model, we know it is not appropriate for every person on the streets. The country has built almost 200,000 new permanent homes for the homeless, and yet street homelessness continues to increase. Some cities like San Francisco have built enough homes to house every chronically homeless person in the city, and yet they too have seen homelessness increase.

The bill also takes aim at this failed model. Instead of just funding more expensive and permanent rooms, Georgia can work to redirect state money to any nonprofit that can show success. It adopts a “Pay-for-Performance” model, where nonprofits who can keep their homeless clients off the streets, out of jail and out of hospitals are rewarded with more money to expand services.

The failure of Georgia’s homeless strategy is obvious. The fact that thousands of families and thousands of students are homeless on any given night is unacceptable. Georgia can and must do better. We have an opportunity to improve and redirect our state funding.

The 2021 legislature needs to provide more safe and sanitary environments, increase access to effective services and encourage people into safer living conditions. If the state continues on its current failed path, we are only going to see more misery on our streets and cities across our Georgia.

The author from Rome represents House of Representatives District 13 and serves on the Appropriations and other committees.

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