Lula is proposing an ordinance that would make “urban camping” illegal and move an increased population of homeless people out of the city.
City Manager Dennis Bergin said he’s heard more complaints about homeless people in the last 12 months than any time in his 18 years in the city.
“It’s kind of a two-edged sword,” Bergin said of the issue. “You’d like for everybody to have a place that they can call home. At the same time, you can’t have them making encampments, which we’ve had a couple of those that we’ve discovered along the way.”
The ordinance is similar to Gainesville’s urban camping ordinance, which passed in 2018, making it illegal to camp, sleep or store property in public parks, along roads and under bridges. Offenders must be given a written or verbal warning before being arrested, but punishment for urban camping would be up to six months in prison and/or a fine up to $1,000. The ordinance will go before Lula City Council for a vote on April 18.
The Georgia Senate proposed legislation this past session to create a statewide misdemeanor charge for urban camping and penalize cities that did not enforce the offense. The bill did not make it out of the Senate, but it would have required enforcement of a law similar to what Lula is proposing.
Homeless people sleeping near the railroad that runs through the center of town and in abandoned buildings have recently been moved out of the city by code enforcement, Bergin said, but Lula City Council members wanted to formalize the process. If the ordinance passes, they would likely have to work with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office to enforce the ordinance, but they are not yet at that stage, he said.
City Councilman Gene Bramlett said he wanted to be proactive about dealing with Lula’s growing homeless population. Some homeless people have recently been gathering near the Lula Depot and in the woods off of Grove Street, he said.
“Some (residents) say that we don’t have a homeless problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem,” Bramlett said. “But that drug and alcohol problem creates homelessness in a lot of situations.”
Mayor Joe Thomas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Lula has few resources for homeless people other than relying on local churches, Bergin said, and they often connect people in need with United Way of Hall County.
Mike Fisher, the housing/program manager at Ninth District Opportunity, primarily works to help homeless people in Gainesville get the resources they need. The homeless population in Gainesville is about six times bigger than it was three years ago, and Fisher said some homeless people will likely move into other areas in the county including Oakwood and Lula.
“Lula is definitely a place where we could start having an impact quickly,” Fisher said. “They are still continuing to come into this region. They have to be somewhere, so anywhere they exist, they’re going to be trespassing. That’s a given.”
It’s difficult for his small team to reach all the needs of the county, he said, but they would like to expand if they have the resources.
“I’ll be reaching out with Dennis (Bergin),” Fisher said. “To understand their perspective and then try to reach out into the community, the homeless community to find out where they are, how they got there and what’s going on with them. And then we’ll try to bring those two considerations together and look for some viable solutions.”
The city will hold two public hearings regarding the proposed ordinance change at 6 p.m. Monday, April 11, and 7 p.m. April 18 at the Lula Depot 5911 Wall St.