Two months after Gainesville passed an ordinance banning urban camping, and almost a month after the city banned 30 uses in the midtown area, including new homeless shelters, local nonprofits that serve the homeless community say their work has been unaffected by the changes so far.
Most of these organizations are located in Gainesville’s midtown and downtown areas to be closer to the population they serve. Brandee Thomas, executive director of My Sister’s Place, a shelter for women and children, said the homeless population is concentrated toward the city center because that is where they can access the resources they need.
“I think it’s more of a default concentration, in that there are some areas where you are likely to see fewer homeless people because there aren’t any resources there,” Thomas said. “So, transportation would be one, access to jobs would be another, access to emergency services would be another.”
The shelter, which can fit up to 16 people, sees people from all over Northeast Georgia because there are a limited number of beds in the area for women and children, Thomas said. But the people that come to My Sister’s Place are often coming from areas where they have access to public transportation, she said.
“The majority of them don’t have vehicles, so we don’t see a lot from Flowery Branch, because there’s no public transportation that goes down there,” Thomas said. “We don’t see a lot from the Cleveland or Clermont areas, because typically that’s not a walkable distance.”
Thomas said the new ordinances, which ban sleeping or living in public spaces, as well as aggressive panhandling, have not directly affected My Sister’s Place yet. Police officers sometimes refer people to the shelter so they have a place to stay, Thomas said.
2016 estimates put the city’s homeless population at about 200 to 400 at any given time.
Sgt. Kevin Holbrook with Gainesville Police said as of Friday afternoon, police had not issued any citations for urban camping or aggressive solicitation since those ordinances had passed. Police stay in contact with nonprofits about how to help people who are homeless, Holbrook said.
Rosa Hightower, lead house monitor for the Salvation Army, said police have also brought people by that shelter. Ever since the homeless camp under the Queen City Bridge was cleared in 2016, Hightower said the homeless population has been more dispersed as people settle into smaller camps or live separately.
The Salvation Army can accommodate nine men and five women and also has five family units. Hightower said there is a shortage of shelter space in the area, especially for women and children. The Salvation Army also sees a lot of people from Gwinnett County, where there are not as many resources available, she said.
“(Homeless people) will find an empty building, they’ll find a little crack, a little safe place for them. … There’s not a lot of places for these people to come out of the elements,” Hightower said.
Ken Pullen, director of the Gainesville City Baptist Rescue Mission, said that the mission had also not seen direct effects of the new rules yet. The mission is in the city’s Midtown Overlay Zone, where officials just banned 30 new uses, including shelters, crisis centers, pawn shops and coin laundries. The mission, like all the existing buildings and nonprofits in the area, is being grandfathered in and can stay.
Pullen said he likes the Midtown Greenway and is anticipating news about what might happen at the former Hall County Jail site, which officials have said they are recruiting developers to build on. He hopes that with changes in midtown come some new affordable housing so it is less difficult for people to transition out of homelessness.
“It’s already hard for them. … My guys can stay here for up to a year, and it’s expensive to move out,” he said.
The men he works with often have multiple jobs but still cannot afford a place to live because of the shortage of affordable housing, he said.
Good News at Noon on Davis Street recently completed renovations on the former Good News Clinics building to convert it to a shelter where 12 men can sleep each night. Co-director Beth Oropeza said Good News has also not yet seen the effects of the new ordinances and has been continuing work as usual.
Men arrive at the shelter every evening between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. and Good News has not yet had to turn someone away due to a lack of space, Oropeza said. The men have to leave in the morning so they can consider their “next steps” and look for employment or housing, she said.
Oropeza said she has noticed redevelopment in the midtown and downtown area, especially with new housing.
“It’s just been built up and cleaned up,” she said.
Thomas said she has also seen the redevelopment in midtown Gainesville and is watching the progress to see how it could affect the people My Sister’s Place serves.
“We are keeping an eye (on redevelopment), because we do see a great need for additional resources outside of immediate housing,” Thomas said. “…There is a great need for truly affordable housing that is under $1,000 (a month) and as we try to grow into the affordable housing arena, we see that certain things are being pushed out of the city, for better or for worse. We have to be mindful of that as we try to consider how can we provide those services.”
Thomas said she hopes stakeholders in the community can continue to work together to address homelessness, and that development and compassion for those in need don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“We all want Gainesville to be even better and an even stronger community, and we do realize that things have to change as the city grows, as the county grows,” Thomas said. “We do want to always have our leadership be mindful that there is a place for everyone here, whether they are more affluent or those in need, and we do have to strike a balance of them all for our community to truly be the best that it can be.”