ATLANTA — A state Senate study committee began work Thursday trying to find ways to help homeless Georgians living on the streets.
Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, the committee’s chairman, made waves earlier this year when he sponsored a bill that would have criminalized street camping.
But on Thursday, Summers emphasized that criminalization is no longer being considered and he is focused on solutions.
“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” he said. “This issue is an issue to make Georgia a better place and to help folks that need help. That’s what we’re here for.”
“Criminalization is off the table,” Summers repeated several times.
The committee is focused on the “unsheltered” homeless population — that is, people without permanent housing living on the streets, in the woods, and in other places not meant for human habitation.
The number of homeless people in Georgia appears to have declined over the past decade, said Christopher Nunn, commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs.
The most recent data, from 2019, showed about 3,880 unsheltered homeless people in the state. Nunn said a new count conducted earlier this year will likely show an uptick over the 2019 level but is still far below where the homeless population stood a decade ago.
One major driver of homelessness is increased housing costs in Georgia, both in Atlanta and in more rural areas. That makes it harder for people to pay rent — even when they are receiving housing assistance.
Nunn said there are currently around 970 households in Georgia with hold a federal housing voucher but cannot find a landlord.
“Supply and affordability are inextricably linked with homelessness,” Nunn said.
About one-third of homeless Georgians live in Atlanta, said Cathryn Vassell, CEO of Partners for Home, the lead agency for homelessness in Atlanta.
In an older approach to addressing homelessness, people who needed medical or mental services were asked to get those services first, to get “ready” for housing, said Vassell.
But today’s best practices focus on providing housing first, Vassell said. This allows people some stability as they tackle other issues they may face, like mental illness or finding a job, she said. The additional supports help prevent many people from returning to homelessness.
Vassell said the housing-first approach is also more cost effective than short-term housing solutions or continued homelessness. She said the organization has also partnered with private funders and developers to build additional supportive housing units.
Partners for Home has had success in getting people in Atlanta into temporary housing and often permanent housing.
But some see the housing-first model as too permissive.
Judge Glock, senior director of policy and research at the Cicero Institute, a conservative think tank, argued that people who are getting housing assistance should be required to meet certain standards, such as sobriety.
If homeless people are unable or do not want to meet those requirements, structured tent encampments are a good alternative, he said. They are safe and can provide sanitation facilities and clean water, he said.
But Richard DeShields, who recently started living in an apartment after years of homelessness, said the tent encampment model would not have worked for him.
DeShields’ life unraveled after his wife and child died in a house fire. He ended up homeless, withdrawn from the world and living in the bushes in a city park.
“I would not have wanted to be in a camp around a lot of people,” DeShields said. He was in such a dark place, he could not stand to be around others, he said.
DeShields said when he was offered temporary housing on a cold night and started to get some social support services, he finally began to put his life back together, though it was a slow process.
DeShields said the support of case managers was a key in his journey to an apartment from the streets.
“You can’t do it by yourself,” he said. “You have to have someone who can hold you. … It takes everybody in Georgia to help bring someone who is homeless up.”