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A plan to create legal homeless camps on public and private properties in Georgia by redirecting some funds from existing local outreach and shelter groups drew debate in a General Assembly committee on Monday.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, would send state dollars currently earmarked for building shelters and short-term housing to be used instead on so-called “structured camping facilities” for a city or county’s homeless population.
The camps would have to provide water, electrical outlets and bathrooms and could only be used for up to six months by a homeless person, effectively reserving the facilities for Georgians who are motivated to find work and secure permanent housing.
Dempsey’s bill, which faces long odds of advancing in the last days of the 2021 legislative session, was hailed Monday by some advocates as an innovative way to address certain kinds of homelessness and slammed by others concerned about money being stripped from shelter-based programs.
“There is no doubt this is a little out-of-the-box,” Dempsey told the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. “It’s creative [and] it’s a different way than we’ve done it.”
Backers of Dempsey’s bill point to a legal camp that local officials set up in Douglas County three years ago to curb the area’s rising homeless population, called Shinnah Haven.
Located on county-owned property, the camp requires residents to keep out of fights, clean their appointed spots and provide official identification in return for a stable place to pitch a tent, access to social workers and electricity from a solar panel, said Douglas County Judge William “Beau” McClain.
“We need to start this in the state of Georgia before [unsheltered homelessness] gets out of hand,” McClain said. “It’s practical to not bring these people to the [emergency room and] to not house them in jail. It’s a practical solution to the problem.”
On top of the camps, Dempsey’s bill also proposes requiring cities with homeless populations larger than the state average to spend a chunk of state and federal grants to create outreach teams made up of police, social services workers and mental health professionals tasked with moving people from illegal street camps to sanctioned homelessness services.
That provision, as well as the proposal to redirect funds for new shelters and short-term housing, sparked backlash from local groups that work to secure permanent housing for Georgia’s homeless populations – particularly since they said Dempsey had not consulted them on the bill before Monday.
Legal homeless camps in places like San Francisco that are much larger than the one in Douglas County have led to sanitation problems and made little headway in reducing the number of people living in tents on the street or in the woods, said Cathryn Marchman, chief executive officer for the group Partners for HOME, who leads Atlanta’s homelessness efforts.
Marchman also questioned whether homeless persons might be forced to live in government-sanctioned camps, potentially triggering an illegal living situation “like a homeless internment camp.”
“If we’re talking about being innovative and actually ending this problem instead of perpetuating it, we should be talking about how we as a state fund and create sustainable revenue streams for permanent housing solutions,” she said. “And we also need to look at the unintended consequences of what sanctioned encampments have done and created around the country.”
No votes were taken on Dempsey’s bill Monday, which fell one week after the Crossover Day deadline for legislation to pass out of one chamber or the other to remain in contention for final passage.
Dempsey, who oversees state mental-health funding as chairwoman of the House Appropriations’ Human Resources Subcommittee, said her bill aims to “begin the conversation” for bringing new ideas to addressing homelessness in Georgia.
“The bottom line is that the effective reduction in street homelessness will help communities be safe,” Dempsey said.