Georgia bill would allow state to create homeless camps

Stephanie Dotson, a licensed practical nurse, and Joy Fernandez de Narayan, a nurse practitioner, of the Mercy Care Street Medicine team walk under an I-20 bridge in downtown Atlanta after bringing water and checking on people living in tents in the shade of the underpass on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (Bita Honarvar)

Georgia cities and counties could be compelled to enforce bans on public camping or sleeping by homeless people under a bill moving forward in the state Senate.

The measure would also create a structure for the state to designate camping areas for homeless people, and calls for an audit to examine how state and local governments are spending money to alleviate homelessness.

The Senate State & Local Government Operations Committee voted 4-3 to advance Senate Bill 62 on Monday, sending it to the full Senate for more debate.

It’s the second year in a row that Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican, has offered a bill aimed at the problem. Last year’s bill would have been harsher, making it a misdemeanor to camp on public property and denying state grants to cities that didn’t enforce the ban.

After an uproar, the Senate decided instead on a study committee that made 26 recommendations over the summer. Summers is offering a new bill this year that only incorporates two of those recommendations — the audit and sanctioned camping.

On Monday, Summers said he had abandoned parts of his previous approach.

“Never once was this bill intended to criminalize any person sleeping on the street or the sidewalk,” Summers said.

But advocates still expressed concerns, saying the bill could lead to cities and counties being harassed by lawsuits over homeless enforcement and that the rules around sanctioned camping are too loose.

“You can be sued for not enforcing. It’s written in such a way that you’re going to require enforcement or risk a lawsuit,” said Isabel Otero, Georgia Policy Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.

Opponents also said the bill doesn’t do enough to address underlying problems or promote permanent solutions.

“If the bill’s job is to remove homeless people so that you don’t see them as often, so that you’re not then uncomfortable by the sight of homeless people, maybe this bill does what it’s supposed to,” said Cindy Battles, policy director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.

Like in other cities and states, the push against public camping is being promoted by the Cicero Institute, which argues that creating specific areas where camping is permitted can be a faster solution than building affordable housing. The institute is bankrolled by venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale.

“Camping is not an ideal solution in all cases,” said Judge Glock, a senior fellow at the Cicero Institute. He told the committee Monday that the bill is “a first step for many people who are looking at unsanctioned camping on the streets or sidewalks.”

The current bill, however, doesn’t require the State Properties Commission to consult local governments before designating the camps. Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman and other told the committee that could be a flashpoint.

“I hope there would be language inserted to work with local municipalities,” Shipman said.

Others called for changes to more closely specify that a camp should have basic sanitation, be accessible to the disabled and have other services available, and to remove language barring a local government from discouraging enforcement, as opposed to prohibiting it.

But Committee Chairman Frank Ginn, a Danielsville Republican, persuaded Atlanta Democrat Jason Esteves to hold off on amendments after Summers pledged to work with him.

“We know what the bill doesn’t do. It doesn’t solve homelessness,” Ginn said. “I think it does provide some relief.”

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