George on Georgia – On homelessness, any easy answer is wrong

Photo by Dean Hesse.

A young man with no home walked from the Shell station up the street with my stepson back to mine last week. Two Pine Lake cops followed both of them home. If I didn’t live here and didn’t know those officers personally, I probably would have been worried about a Black Lives Matter moment on my doorstep. It fit the pattern.

It turns out that my stepson had offered to get the fellow a mask and perhaps some help from me, because I’m supposed to be good at that sort of thing. And at times I’ve thought I was good at it. Alas, I know better now. To be good at getting someone help, there has to be actual help to get.

If you’re over 25 and under 65, Black, male, healthy … but have a criminal record … you’re more or less done. Employment takes forever to find and housing a little longer than forever. Someone has to be ready to step in personally. With half of Atlanta holding on by their fingernails, most people without shelter can’t find someone ready to put their own shelter on the line.

The fellow was staying at the recovery center downtown. He found his way back to the area around Stone Mountain because that’s what he knew. He needed a job and a place to stay. I really didn’t know how to get him either one in the middle of a pandemic. And neither did the cops.

We see encampments now where we did not before, counting tents as we hit the I-85 ramp, or spotting the second shopping cart stuffed full of clothes on the corner of North Decatur and DeKalb Industrial Way, or noticing different people walking in between cars before the light turns green, or how often people in the parking lot at a Kroger – or in the Kroger – are asking us for money or food.

And some look at that and demand that cops roll in with polished jackboots and arrest people for ruining their day without regard for the next part – where people should go. Jail, one supposes, for the crime of being too poor and too marginalized to find proper housing.

Police interaction with the unhoused can create more problems than it solves. Some people require hospitalization for their psychiatric disorders, and that can’t generally begin without a police officer. People managing serious psychiatric disorders often shun police interaction for fear of a psych detainment – the 10-13 hold. If a social worker is there, they can associate that social worker with the police and shun them both, driving them deeper into homelessness.

Still, we remain inundated with jingoistic Trumpist bloviating, meant more to diminish the efforts of people trying to solve homelessness than to … you know … solve homelessness. It’s a sign of creeping fascism. Most people have learned to tune it out.

But tuning it out doesn’t solve the problem either.

A model is emerging from Houston, with police officers partnering with social workers to gingerly place people in encampments into proper housing. The local ordinance passed by the city of Tucker last week – one allowing a police officer to enforce urban camping law – adopts many of the Houston practices. A cop must issue a verbal or written warning, and must offer services before enforcement. If there are no meaningful services available, the ordinance can’t be enforced.

Tucker’s new law came out of serious local soul-searching related to a handful of people experiencing homelessness. There’s nothing abstract about their intentions: they know the names of the folks who need help, and have been looking for some way to win their agreement to help for years.

Of course, Tucker has no social services to speak of. When cities incorporate, they’re very fond of building parks departments and zoning boards and police departments and very rarely interested in creating drug treatment beds and permanently supportive housing. Tucker relies on the county, and DeKalb County manifestly isn’t doing enough.

An “alternative” to this approach landed with a thud at the Georgia legislature today.

The Reducing Street Homelessness Act of 2021 had a no-notice hearing this week in the Georgia legislature. It might as well have been named the Looking At Homeless People From Our Cars Makes Us Uncomfortable Act.

Cathryn Marchman, who runs Atlanta’s homelessness continuum of care, described the text of HB 713 as establishing “homeless internment camps.”

On its surface, the Reducing Street Homelessness Act appears to push local municipalities into doing more to alleviate homelessness. The bill contains a few nuggets with which I might even agree: for example, a reasonable case can be made for lowering the threshold for police to do involuntary 10-13 holds, changing the “imminent harm” standard to just “harm.” The current threshold has in my view resulted in tremendous suffering and documented loss of life.

But in practice, based on how this absurd bill is written, it would incentivize suburban communities to deliberately undercount the number of people who are experiencing homelessness, and then to aggressively bus those people out of the county, almost certainly to Atlanta.

The bill would bar the construction of congregate shelter, and require communities to instead designate safe parking and camping areas. It would then cut off all funding “to any CoC or nonprofit in municipalities that show an increase in unsheltered homeless of 50 individuals or more for two consecutive years, or that refuses to enforce laws banning street camping or sleeping in public.”

Looking at you, Atlanta and DeKalb.

The sponsor, Rep. Katie Dempsey, said this only applies to state funds. The legislation defines state funds as “all state and federal funds appropriated to the department relating to grants for providers of shelter and services to the homeless and housing initiatives.” That’s all the money that isn’t a direct federal grant.

The law would effectively require communities to charge people experiencing homelessness with a crime unless they relocated to one of the camps or otherwise accepted housing services … assuming such services were available at all. Stay in the camp, or face fines or a jail sentence. How voluntary.

The law would prohibit funding for housing if that housing costs too much to build or maintain. Anything more expensive than $35,000 per unit (not counting land) or requiring more than $10,000 a year to maintain is forbidden, which more or less makes it impossible to build single-unit shelter in the city of Atlanta. The law would also prohibit funding for congregate shelter.

I don’t want to hear one flipping word about the Real Housewives of Atlanta while this is going on.

I also don’t want to hear smug, disingenuous idiocy from suburban conservatives about how “Democrats” (read: Black people) cause these problems when the service delivery strategy of places like Fayette County is a bus ticket to Atlanta.

The stimulus checks will help in the short term. There’s some serious housing aid in the American Rescue Plan. But the underlying dynamics in Atlanta haven’t changed. Housing is still getting more expensive. The wage gap isn’t closing. Atlanta as cyberpunk dystopia is still on schedule.

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept

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