Local homeless assistance programs
Where: 669 Main St., Gainesville
More info: 770-287-9700
Where: 979 Davis St., Gainesville
More info: 770-503-1366
Where: 881 Dorsey St., Gainesville
More info: 678-450-8270
Where: 681 Dorsey St., Gainesville
More info: 770-531-0135
Where: 851 Main St., Gainesville
More info: 678-978-1009
More info: 770-572-7945
Who: Women and children
Where: 2480 Martin Luther King Blvd., Gainesville
More info: 770-503-1181
Who: Victims of domestic violence
Crisis hotline: 770-536-5860
What: Provides emergency financial assistance
Where: 1 1st St. in Gainesville
More info: 770-531-0144
Where: 946 Lanier Ave., Gainesville
More info: 770-535-0786
Source: Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center
Hall is just one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015.
That homeless population has drawn attention from the cities of Flowery Branch and Oakwood, which this fall 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.
Yet the U.S. Department of Justice this year argued that laws banning the homeless from sleeping in public are unconstitutional.
Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers said at the time that the law primarily targets repeat offenders. Spillers said referrals to homeless shelters and other resources would be given if it were a “one-time thing.”
Programs to assist the homeless are primarily concentrated in Gainesville.
Three federal courts across the nation have ruled against similar panhandling ordinances this year alone, citing a violation of free speech rights.
And now cities in Idaho, California and Florida are facing lawsuits challenging the legality of prohibiting people from sleeping on sidewalks, benches, under bridges, in the woods or anywhere else deemed publicly inappropriate.
A CASE STUDY
The federal government believes these laws are particularly indefensible when there are not enough shelter beds available, which is the case in Hall.
“When adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public,” reads a document from the federal government filed as part of a lawsuit challenging similar bans on “urban camping” in Boise, Idaho. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and this is the foundation upon which the U.S. government stakes its case. Like food and water, it argues, sleep is fundamental to human existence, and therefore cannot be outlawed.
The Boise case was dismissed in late September when the judge ruled that some plaintiffs no longer had standing to sue because they had acquired housing or could no longer be found.
And that’s a fitting description of the future alternatives for those living on the streets.
Two plaintiffs have appealed, according to news reports.
Similar lawsuits are now moving forward in Manteca, Calif., and Sarasota, Fla.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty surveyed 187 cities between 2011 and 2014 and found that 34 percent now have laws banning public sleeping and panhandling on the books.
The growing prevalence of these laws in cities nationwide prompted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fire a warning shot this fall threatening to withhold funding from communities that criminalize poverty and homelessness.
Gainesville and Hall County officials said they have no plans to consider similar laws.
“Flowery Branch is always concerned about the constitutionality of any of its ordinances, and if there are found to be any legitimate concerns, we will address them when necessary,” City Manager Bill Andrew said.
Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said there were no current plans to revisit the ordinance despite the federal government’s objections. Though no citations have yet been issued, Brown said the new law has reduced panhandling, and there have been no reports of “urban camping.”
Homeless advocates, however, said prohibitions on the homeless only work when enough resources and services are in place.
Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, has been working to identify where assistance programs overlap, where gaps are growing and where new programs are warranted to serve the area’s homeless.
Moss is building a resource directory and map that details homeless assistance programs available in Hall, as well as the location of transitional apartments, affordable housing and other services benefiting those in need, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling.
“The last document I worked on back in May 2011 is painfully outdated,” she said.
Moss said her near-term goals are to launch the directory for homeless individuals and assistance providers; identify private/public barriers that are keeping providers from successfully helping others; and determining if and how governments, businesses and residents can unite and work together to remove those barriers.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS
The causes of homelessness are as varied as America’s 21st century demographic makeup.
Some individuals are victims of domestic violence or human trafficking. Some are child runaways. Others are battling substance abuse, mental illness or struggling with a physical disability.
Some are veterans. There are whole nuclear families, too.
The housing crunch and foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession exacerbated the number of homeless, sending those who never wanted for anything onto the streets and into shelters.
There were 61 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals throughout the county in January, but just 52 emergency and
transitional shelter beds available, when HUD and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs conducted a biannual survey count.
These numbers only capture “registered” beds, and some shelters did not participate in the count.
For example, the Gainesville City Baptist Rescue Mission houses up to 24 men in dormitory-style living at any given time. Two beds are currently available.
But Director Ken Pullen said the Mission did not participate in the most recent count because it is not an officially registered 501(c)3 nonprofit. The count, in part, helps determine where federal and state funding for homeless assistance programs is directed.
However, this fact also helps explain why the actual number of homeless in the state and Hall County is very likely underreported. Just as the Mission’s shelter beds were not counted, neither was the number of homeless staying there.
As the state DCA reports, “Georgia’s homeless population isn’t static. Some of the people who were homeless on the January count date will find housing. Other people, who had housing on the count night, will later become homeless.”
Homeless advocates argue that the count underestimates the number of homeless children and youth.
It also is common for those living on the streets to not participate in the statewide count.
Hines, a 60-year-old longtime resident of the homeless camp beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville, said last winter that he was skeptical of what good it would do.
There are several nonprofit and independent organizations that provide emergency, transitional and long-term shelter beds in Hall.
And The Way ministry, located in the industrial area of Gainesville, hopes to open a shelter.
But according to HUD and the Justice Department, laws targeting homelessness become even more problematic when communities have no publicly funded shelters, which is the case locally.
While some local shelters receive some state and federal support, no local government provides any direct funding or operational assistance.
“There are no homeless assistance programs run solely by the government in our community,” Moss said. “All programs are provided through nonprofit groups or individual ministries. Some receive government funding to operate specific programs (emergency shelter, transitional housing, mental health counseling, financial assistance) but the city, county or state are not directly operating any programs.”
In 2014, 42 percent of all homeless individuals across the country, or more than 153,000 Americans, were unsheltered.
Across Georgia, an estimated 13,790 individuals experienced homelessness at some point this year. And there are just 9,600 shelter beds available.
Of Georgia’s homeless, 58 percent were staying in shelters, with the remaining 42 percent out on the street when the survey was conducted earlier this year.
Harley, a resident of the Mission, said he understands why government would want to keep the homeless from infringing on private property rights. But public spaces are another dilemma.
Harley said he was kicked out of a campground for overstaying his welcome and using an electric outlet to charge his phone.
He was paying $18 a night there, and now pays just $7 at the Mission, where he receives two free meals a day.
“Most shelters have strict rules,” such as no drinking and smoking, Pullen said, and some homeless individuals choose to sleep outside instead.
Most of the men at the Mission have jobs and receive counseling, Pullen said.
When asked if laws targeting the homeless could be effective, Pullen shook his head and said that his shelter exists, in part, because of a lack of affordable housing options in Gainesville.
“A government can make any rule they want to enforce,” he said deadpan.
Terry Wasielevski has been living at the Good New at Noon shelter in Gainesville for the last three months. He pays $60 a week for a bed in cramped quarters. But at least he has a roof over his head.
Wasielevski said homelessness would not simply go away with laws in place to prohibit public sleeping and panhandling.
It’s a refrain the federal government has used, arguing that such laws send the homeless deeper into the shadows.
“I should be able to sleep wherever I want,” Wasielevski said. “Anybody has a right as long as they ain’t hurting no one.”