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What text messages show about city mistakenly banning homeless camps
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Gainesville City Manager Brian Lackey talks about the city's new program to address homelessness Friday, Feb. 2, 2023. - photo by Scott Rogers

A city program meant to help the homeless got off to a rocky start in January when, a day after the program’s first meeting, code enforcement officials left eviction notices at two homeless camps and told about 25 residents they had a week to get off city property. 

That was a mistake, city officials said. And the next day, the eviction notices were rescinded. 

Mayor Sam Couvillon, who was not at the meeting but was briefed on what happened, said code enforcement “misunderstood” their assignment.

“Our goal is to try to identify people who are in need and try to figure out how we can help them, not try to figure out how we can disturb and make their lives more difficult,” Couvillon said in January. 

City officials say the goal of the program is to identify out-of-city homeless residents, connect them with loved ones and relocate them to their hometown, hence the name of the program — “Gainesville to Hometown.” 

The city council in November approved a $100,000 service contract with United Way of Hall County, a local nonprofit that will lead the effort. 

Jessica Dudley, president of United Way, said the Gainesville to Hometown program is one piece of their Compass Center, where social workers meet with people, assess their needs and provide resources related to housing, employment or food. 

“We have noticed that there has been an uptick in the homeless population coming here to United Way really looking for services and ways to get out of homelessness and back into stable housing,” Dudley said. “A lot of times what we're seeing are folks who are being sent here from outside of the community, and then when they get here they're unhoused and they have no support system.”

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Retired Gainesville Police Investigator and Overhead Cover nonprofit founder Joe Amerling visits a homeless camp in Gainesville Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, where he has worked with the residents many times. - photo by Scott Rogers
Text messages

Couvillon’s telling of what went wrong at the initial meeting is corroborated by text messages between city officials, obtained by The Times through an open records request. 

“Are you aware of a city sponsored raid on homeless camp?” Couvillon texted City Manager Bryan Lackey on Jan. 10 hours after the camp raids. 

“I will call in a minute,” Lackey says. 

“I’m flying so can’t talk,” Couvillon says. 

Lackey tells Couvillon that he and code enforcement met the day before with Jessica Dudley, president of United Way of Hall County, “to get the Gainesville to Hometown program started.” 

“In that meeting, our Code Enforcement folks mentioned that the camp on City property at that location would be the best place for us to start finding candidates for this new program,” he says. “Our folks visited today and did more than just finding the candidates, they started telling the group they could not be there and posted a couple of signs stating such.” 

Lackey spoke to The Times last week and talked about the genesis of the program and what went wrong at their initial meeting.  

The idea for the program came from the successes that Gainesville Police Department mental health clinicians had in reconnecting several homeless folks with family members. 

“So we started thinking, ‘Well, maybe that's our role in all this,’” Lackey said of how the city can address homelessness. But at the time, he added, it seemed like too big a task for the police department’s two mental health clinicians, who already have a lot on their plate. 

A few months ago, however, he and Couvillon attended a meeting of the Georgia Municipal Association. The issue of homelessness came up, and they heard about a program in Columbus in which the city partners with their local United Way to reconnect the homeless with family members. 

“We said, ‘Well, I think it might be worth talking to our United Way,’” Lackey recalled. 

“We believe a large portion of the homeless population comes to Gainesville, for whatever reason,” he said. “I think there's different theories and opinions about how that happens, but I think we believe that a large percentage of the homeless population is not from here.”

He stressed that the program is motivated by compassion — no one will be forced to be relocated, he said. 

“It's not put them on a bus and say, ‘Get lost.’ It's not put them in a police car and take them to the city limit line or the county line and say, ‘Don't come back,’ nothing like that,” he said. “If we find out they're not from here and they don't want to do it, we're not going to forcibly do that. It's just a, ‘Hey, if you want to get back home, we got a program.’” 

“That's why we run it through the United Way with a social worker, so it's not police and or code enforcement running lead on it,” he said. “Code enforcement was involved [in the camp evictions] for just a little bit of security. ... If you go in there, you want to make sure people are going to feel comfortable going into that environment.” 

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A homeless man walks through a camp in the woods in Gainesville Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, back to the tent where he lives. The City of Gainesville had notified the camp residents to be off the property. - photo by Scott Rogers
‘Another way to put them on a bus’

But some local homelessness activists have criticized the program. Most homeless people are from the city or surrounding area, they say, and the program doesn’t address the root cause of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing. 

“To me, it just sounds like instead of addressing some type of transitional housing or affordable housing, it's another way to put them on a bus and send them back to their hometown,” said Joe Amerling, founder and president of Overhead Cover, a nonprofit that assists homeless people and provides portable showers.

Amerling’s wife, Jane White, was less critical and commended the city for doing something to address the problem. 

“This is a good first step for sure,” White said. But, she added, “a lot of people are from right here, and they don't need a bus ticket because their family member is 15 miles away.” 

Mike Fisher, street outreach director for Ninth District Opportunity, a nonprofit that serves low-income families, estimated that about half of the homeless population are employed, and they still can’t find anywhere to live. 

Fisher said there are officially 337 unsheltered homeless residents in Hall County, though he said the actual number likely exceeds 500.

“The challenge we face is that no matter how hard these people work, our unsheltered friends and neighbors here, towards their independence and self-sufficiency … they still can't find a place to live and get off the street,” he said.

“It's not a useful program,” said Christen Lott Hunte, president of the Agape Project of Georgia, a local homelessness advocacy organization. “The only thing that fixes homelessness is affordable housing.” 

Affordable housing

Experts seem to agree. 

“I'm a big believer that unless you really focus on the housing-side equation, you're not going to be able to end homelessness in a material way,” said Gregg Colburn, professor of real estate at University of Washington’s College of Built Environments and co-author of “Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns.”

They write in their book, “In virtually all studies that analyze intercommunity variation in homelessness rates, measures of rent costs have been identified as significant predictors of homelessness.”

They say structural factors contribute much more to homelessness than personal failings or bad luck. 

“That doesn't mean that we don't need support services and all these other things — I firmly believe that — but you could end all addiction tomorrow and Seattle would still have a massive homelessness problem just because of the housing-market dynamics,” Colburn said. “These conventional explanations of homelessness, like addiction, mental illness, poverty, which are individual-level factors, do increase the risk of homelessness. So it is fair to say that drug use is a ‘cause’ of homelessness, but what we try to address in the book and the question that we're asking is, why is it so bad in places like San Francisco and Seattle and not in Detroit, Michigan, for example? And when you look at that, it's not the composition of the people who live in that city that are responsible for those much higher rates, meaning they don't have more people  in San Francisco who are addicted or mentally ill or whatever the case may be, it's the housing-market conditions, and that's ultimately what drives levels of homelessness.” 

Colburn's findings are at odds with Couvillon's ideas about the root causes of homelessness. 

“I personally think that mental illness is the driving force behind homelessness,” Couvillon said, though he added that “affordable housing is without a doubt an issue,” and said he is very open to learning more about the problem and hearing different perspectives. 

“You will not get any argument from me that there's a lack of inventory,” he said. 

And city officials say their efforts at addressing homelessness have just begun, noting that the “Gainesville to Hometown” program is just the first step. 

“I think it maybe goes back to the adage, how do you eat the elephant?” Lackey said. “One bite at a time.”