Gainesville Police plan to clear a homeless encampment located under the Queen City Bridge beginning Monday after a request from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owns the right of way.
City officials said they are working with local nonprofits, shelters and missions that support area homeless to coordinate the sweep and offer mental health, substance abuse and housing services to those in need.
The police action comes at a time when reports of violence at the camp, where about a dozen or so men and women reside at any given time, have grown more frequent.
Police Chief Carol Martin said officers would post signs, and barricades may be erected to keep the site from being inhabited again. Officers will also patrol the area more frequently.
The homeless will be given until Oct. 10 to move, according to initial plans shared with The Times.
According to a GDOT letter sent to city police earlier this month, which was obtained by The Times this week, state officials are citing a Georgia code that authorizes “law enforcement officers and security personnel to deny entrance and remove persons from state property.”
“Current conditions make maintenance inspections and repair work hazardous to GDOT’s employees due to illegal structures and waste that accumulates,” the letter states.
City Manager Bryan Lackey said the city was “put in a position” to crackdown on the “trespassing.”
The planned sweep marks a quick turnabout in city policy, however.
The bridge is one of the longest inhabited homeless camps in Gainesville.
“It’s a shame they’ve been living there all this time,” Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said.
But law enforcement had been reticent as recently as last week to shut it down.
Several city officials acknowledge that some of these homeless are likely to move to another location, which could make providing services even more difficult.
A scattering of homeless individuals reside at other bridges nearby, for example.
And substance abuse problems effectively make some homeless ineligible to enter local shelters, which have strict policies against alcohol and drug use.
Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, said she is working to contact local service providers, such as shelters, mental health experts and substance abuse counselors to develop a “crisis intervention team.”
These organizations are invited to join city officials and police at the encampment to assist those in chronic need of support.
“If we don’t do it right, it will repeat itself down the road,” Moss said.
But Moss said she is also aware that some homeless will decline help.
An emerging “criminal element” has driven a new sense of urgency to clear the camp, Councilman Sam Couvillon said.
The camp often attracts other individuals, some homeless and some not, looking to score drugs and party.
Several ministries and volunteers have pulled out of working under the bridge in recent months after witnessing violence firsthand, and law enforcement resources have been expended on investigating alleged assaults, loitering at nearby businesses and other issues.
City officials said the camp can also present public health concerns.
For example, heavy rains flooded the camp on two occasions last winter after pipes along a natural drainage course became clogged, backing up tens of thousands of gallons of water and destroying couches, tents and personal belongings in the process.
The stagnant water sat for days until a local ministry stepped up to vacuum it out while the GDOT worked to fix the drainage pipes.
There is also no sanitation at the site.
But the homeless population is almost entirely concentrated within the Gainesville city limits, leaving city officials to manage the costs and fallout.
The problem has been exacerbated by recent ordinances passed in the cities of Flowery Branch and Oakwood that cracked down on panhandling and “urban camping.”
Those offenses are now considered a misdemeanor in the South Hall cities, with punishment reaching as high as a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
The U.S. Department of Justice has argued in lawsuits elsewhere around the country that laws banning the homeless from sleeping in public are unconstitutional.
Officials in Flowery Branch said they would attempt to refer the homeless to shelters and other resources as a first option, but those resources are largely based in Gainesville.
Gainesville officials said they hope to take a different approach.
Lackey said it’s important to be “compassionate, humane” in the way this is handled.
Couvillon said he is cautiously optimistic about the plan to assist the homeless under the bridge, but recognizes that the planned sweep guarantees no solution and might only serve to relocate the homeless to other unsheltered locations.
“I do wonder what the capabilities of the nonprofits are,” he added.