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Lula works to address homelessness with urban camping ordinance. This is what residents are saying

Lula residents say they have seen an increase in the city’s homeless population, but not all agree a new city ordinance criminalizing urban camping would solve the problem. 

The ordinance would set penalties for people sleeping and camping on public property. It will go before the Lula City Council Monday, April 18, for a potential vote. 

At a public hearing Monday, April 11, residents had a chance to speak before the city council, and some advocated for a greater police presence to deal with people sleeping in public parks and abandoned buildings. But others oppose the ordinance change, saying there are better alternatives to solve the problem. 

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. 

Eric Stuart, a pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Lula, spoke in opposition to the change at the hearing Monday. 

“I believe we don't have a homeless issue, we have an alcohol and drug issue in our city,” Stuart said. “It’s going to take Hall County tax (money) for the patrol to come out and arrest them, to put them in jail for the six months if they do not pay the fine, which they’re probably not going to pay the fine, because they use all their money on their addictions.” 

Former Councilman Mordecai Wilson offered a different solution in a letter to city council members. The city and county should instead consider constructing a homeless shelter and work with local churches, he wrote. 

“It is going to take everyone of us, regardless of our occupation or profession, to help this happen,” Wilson wrote. “With this kind of assistance, homeless persons should be able to take their place in society as contributing members, making our community better for all of us.” 

Felton Wood supported the proposed ordinance, saying council members should have the “backbone” to push homeless people out of Lula. 

Mayor Joe Thomas and City Manager Dennis Bergin said they met with Mike Fisher — who works with homeless people in Gainesville in his role with Ninth District Opportunity — to learn more about the issue and how to work with churches and other community organizations. 

Thomas said after the work session Monday the council may table the item to take more time to discuss how to best help the homeless population, which he said has increased in the last year in Lula. He’s heard several complaints from residents about trespassing and urban camping, he said, and he hopes the ordinance would act as a deterrent. 

“We’re going to try to get the churches together and see if we can find a solution to this problem,” Thomas said. 

Some churches have food banks in the city, but there are few resources for homeless people unless they can make their way to Gainesville or other larger cities. 

Bethlehem Baptist Church has a food bank and a weekly faith-based program for those with addiction issues, said Len Land, the church’s pastor, but it’s the only such program in the city. 

“We have a Wednesday night supper, and we have had a couple different ones come in who are legitimately homeless,” Land said. “They’ll sit down with us and have supper with us. … Unfortunately, that’s about as much as we are doing at this point.”