The Gainesville City Council unanimously approved a pair of ordinances Tuesday that will address panhandling and urban camping, or living in public spaces.
Several people raised concerns at Tuesday’s meeting about how the ordinances would criminalize the homeless community. Officials emphasized that the role of the new rules was to help officers connect people with community resources.
One ordinance bans “urban camping,” or living or putting up a tent in a public space. Living or storing personal property on a public street, in a public park or underneath a bridge is a violation of the ordinance.
According to the ordinance, officers are supposed to issue someone a warning before they arrest anyone. The city will also be working with local nonprofits to help homeless people find housing or a place to stay.
Flowery Branch and Oakwood passed similar ordinances in 2015.
Another ordinance bans “aggressive” panhandling. The ordinance defines aggressive behavior as acting in a way that would cause someone to believe they are in danger, intimidating someone after they have declined the person soliciting, touching someone without consent, blocking the person being solicited or using threatening or abusive language.
The Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, told councilmembers that aggressive behavior can be perceived differently by different people.
“Someone could approach a resident and they might be fearful of the way that person looks. They might be fearful of the way that person talks, and that on its face could be aggressive solicitation to some people,” Johnson said.
The aggressive solicitation ordinance also bans panhandling after sunset or before sunrise, in public parking lots or parking decks, on public transit or at public transit stops, or within 15 feet of the entrance or exit of a bank, check cashing business or ATM, unless the building owner allows it.
Arturo Adame spoke in opposition of the ordinance Tuesday, saying that the city still lacks the infrastructure needed to support the homeless community.
“Before any action needs to be made to be able to move the homeless or try to combat the homeless problem here in Gainesville, I think more long-term solutions should be in place to prevent the problem from escalating further,” Adame said.
Arresting people will make the homelessness issue worse by making it more difficult for people to become more financially stable, Adame said.
“That could just put more people in jail and when people go to jail, that just puts another stain on their record and just further puts them in that cycle where it’s harder and harder to reintegrate,” Adame said.
Johnson agreed, saying that arresting homeless people would burden the county jail with an influx of people.
The Rev. Corey L. Brown, pastor at St. Luke Church on the Square, said he has previously worked with groups in Atlanta and saw jail overcrowding there when the homeless were arrested for urban camping. Addressing the problem will take long-term efforts, he said.
“I think that we can work together as a community to prevent the vilification of people that are merely victims of their circumstances,” Brown said.
Mike Parker, who lives in South Hall and is running for the Hall County Board of Commissioners, said many people in the area are already struggling financially, and homelessness can affect people when they do not expect it. He told the story of a woman he knew who ended up homeless after an abusive relationship.
“I know you’re working on some ordinances for the people who are currently struggling with homelessness, but I urge you to start working on prevention of homelessness,” Parker said.
Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said the goal of the ordinance was not to criminalize homelessness but rather to connect people with resources and help officers handle complaints.
“This is not a situation where we’re going to round people up and take them to the city limit lines and say, ‘Get out and move on.’ It’s really so we can get them to the resources,” Lackey said.
Officers will be trained to work with nonprofits to help homeless people find the help they need, rather than taking people to jail.
“When complaints arise to us and officers see the situation, we can work with community partners so that we can see a situation, perhaps even take one of those community nonprofits with us to see that situation and get that person to the help they need and the services they need,” Lackey said.
The city had been receiving more complaints, and officers needed a city ordinance to address those complaints without violating anyone’s civil rights, Lackey said.
Councilmembers said Tuesday that they were reassured by law enforcement’s commitment to training officers and working with community partners to address homelessness.