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How nonprofits, city officials are addressing homelessness in wake of new ordinances
Gainesville has banned urban camping, aggressive panhandling
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Local homeless man Mark has nowhere to stay so he spends his time camping in out of the way places where he cannot be seen. Gainesville recently adopted an ordinance that targets the homeless by banning "urban camping," or sleeping or living in public places. - photo by Scott Rogers

In his seven years in Gainesville, Mark has lived in 17 different homeless camps, moving on each time he has been asked to leave.

He has lived in camps off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and West Ridge Road, forming connections with some neighbors, while others come and go.

For now, he is settled in a wooded area in Gainesville’s midtown. He cooks on a propane stove and sleeps in a tent on a mattress lifted up on pallets to stay dry. For about a year, he has had a cat named “Kitty Kitty” who keeps him company.

The spot, removed from the railroad tracks and not visible from the nearby Queen City Parkway, is more remote than some of the other camps he has lived in — “out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

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Mark carries a new tent back to the site where he lives along the railroad tracks Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. With nowhere to live except outdoors Mark and other area homeless are breaking the law as Gainesville recently adopted two ordinances that target the homeless--one bans "urban camping," or sleeping or living in public places. The other one addresses "aggressive" panhandling. - photo by Scott Rogers

But the city of Gainesville is cracking down on “urban camping,” or living or sleeping in public spaces like parks or the side of the road. The City Council unanimously passed a pair of ordinances on Oct. 2 banning urban camping and “aggressive solicitation,” new rules that city officials have said will help law enforcement handle complaints and connect people with local nonprofits to get help. At the public hearing on Oct. 2, however, some raised concerns that the ordinances would criminalize homelessness and further disadvantage people in poverty.

Flowery Branch and Oakwood passed similar ordinances in 2015.

Mark said he understands the intent of the ordinances, especially the ban on urban camping as it applies to spaces like parks and roads.

“The public is going to be going through there,” he said. “They don’t want to see a homeless person sleeping on the bench or something. I can understand that. But back here, we’re not bothering nobody.”

In fall 2016, Gainesville officials cleared a camp underneath the Queen City Bridge following a request from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owned the right of way. 2016 estimates put Gainesville’s homeless population at about 200 to 400 at any given time.

Bryan Lackey
Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey

Bryan Lackey, Gainesville’s city manager, said officers will not be doing active sweeps looking for people who are violating the ordinances. Officers did not know how to address calls about panhandling or urban camping without violating a homeless person’s rights because there was not a city ordinance on the books before, he said.

Sgt. Kevin Holbrook with the Gainesville Police Department said as of Thursday afternoon no one had been cited for violating either ordinance yet.

Holbrook said the ordinances will give officers the option to take action if needed, but arrests are not the goal.

“Officers were put into difficult situations because there was not always corrective action that could be taken,” he said. “So in the public’s eyes, it was as if the police department was not responding or was not necessarily meeting the needs of the community.”

Education about the ordinances and local resources has been included in training efforts, Holbrook said. Officers will work with local nonprofits to help homeless people find food or a place to stay, he said, and it is not uncommon for officers to step in and offer assistance themselves by paying for a hotel room for a homeless person they meet.

“It’s not just an enforcement role,” Holbrook said. “It’s taking care of everyone no matter what.”

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Mark enters his camp Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, following a visit local homeless ministry The Way for lunch. Gainesville recently an ordinance that targets the homeless by banning "urban camping," or sleeping or living in public places. - photo by Scott Rogers

The United Way of Hall County and its Compass Center, a resource center that connects people with area nonprofits, would be one of officers’ first stops when trying to help a homeless person find a place to stay. The Compass Center uses an intake process that aims to find the root cause of the issue to help people based on their particular situation, according to United Way president Joy Griffin.

“Homelessness can happen for a host of different reasons,” Griffin said. “In some cases, it’s situational, meaning they had a job, they had a home and one thing went wrong. … In other situations, the homelessness goes a little bit deeper, and maybe it might be a result of mental illness or an addiction issue.”

The United Way presented an action plan last month that aims to address poverty by looking at the related issues of education, health and financial stability.

“Your education leads to your ability to put a roof over your head and food on the table. Your health leads to your ability to work. It’s all connected,” Griffin said.

Jerry Deyton, pastor and founder of The Way, a mission and day center for the homeless in midtown Gainesville, said right now, there simply aren’t enough places for the homeless to go. But nonprofits and churches are working to create more shelters and other resources, he said.

“Until we come up with a solution, and bring these solutions together, the community and the churches are working on solutions to the problem,” he said. “We just have to bring them full force. We can’t help anybody until we get them out of that environment.”

Lee Glasper is not homeless himself — he lives locally with family — but he has close ties to the homeless community. He was engaged to Jennifer Johnson, a homeless woman who was hit by a train near Georgia Avenue in September. He stops by The Way most days to help out and check in on the regulars.

Glasper said high rent prices, plus other costs like utilities and food, are a lot to manage and people cannot find places to live they can afford.

“They get told one thing about the rent, and then when they get there, it goes up,” he said.

If the homeless have to move too far, they will not be able to access the resources they need as easily, Glasper said.

“If they go outside the city limits, it’s going to be too far for them to come to walk to The Way and all that,” he said.

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