Policies to End Homelessness Should Focus on Evidence-Based Practices – Not Criminalization

Is it a crime to be poor and homeless? Unfortunately, in Georgia and across the United States, that is not a rhetorical question.

In the 2021 Georgia legislative session, HB 713 proposed to address chronic unsheltered homelessness (namely street homelessness and people living in tents) by diverting public funding away from best practices for permanent supportive housing and services. Instead, the bill proposed to fund the creation of encampments for people to live in tents or their cars. The bill also sought to halt state funds to communities that do not enforce criminal laws against sleeping or camping in public.

HB 713 did not pass, but SB 535 arrived in 2022, which proposed making unsheltered homelessness a misdemeanor offense and the requirement for its enforcement as a condition for a city or county to receive related state and federal pass through grant funds. In Georgia, a misdemeanor offense carries a penalty of up to $1,000 and/or up to a year in jail.

SR 535 also failed to pass–but the dialogue generated by the proposed pieces of legislation led to the creation of the Senate Study Committee on Unsheltered Homelessness. The committee recently issued a report with 26 recommendations. The list is muddled and many of the items listed are innocuous. Yet the chairman of the committee, Senator Carden Summers, who represents several rural south Georgia counties and authored last session’s criminalization bill, has pledged to author some type of legislation in 2023.

It is counterproductive to burden people who are experiencing homeless with the trauma of unwarranted apprehension and the consequences of expensive fines and a criminal record. What if we instead invest in proven housing-first interventions that, in the long run, save public dollars while advancing the goal of ending homelessness?

During the 2023 Georgia legislative session and beyond, Project Community Connections, Inc. (PCCI) will continue to encourage lawmakers to remember that they represent all their constituents–even those who might not have a permanent address at a moment in time.

Georgia is not the only state that needs the reminder. Loud voices in Texas, for example, called for a statewide camping ban that is having serious consequences in cities including Austin, and are now pushing for changes that are not centered on housing-first practices. The list could go on; from New York to Arizona, Tennessee to Missouri; at any point in time policies designed to avoid root problems and vilify the homeless are being considered and enforced around the country.

Our unhoused neighbors are not our enemies. They are the veterans who have stood for our freedom, families just like ours who have fallen to the crushing weight of medical debt, and victims of crime themselves. From domestic partner abuse to unlawful eviction by predatory landlords, homeless people are more often the victims of crime rather than perpetrators.

We know these realities are true because PCCI is part of a community of practice led by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NEAH). NEAH brings together the people who are seeing copycat policies appear across the nation. Despite political noise to the contrary, there is little debate among those who work directly with people who are homeless that a housing-first approach can reduce the use of publicly funded crisis services, including jails, hospitals and emergency departments. Instead of sending someone who is struggling to jail and perpetuating a cycle of incarceration, debt and instability, we can improve the lives of individuals and families who are on the street and make our communities better places while saving public dollars by helping establish long-term and permanent housing.

We aren’t speaking from a removed or academic position; we see first-hand that proven, data-based interventions are working.

We won’t give up—and there are promising signs within our state’s halls of power. For example, the Housing Not Handcuffs Justice Network (HNHJN), a group of litigators and legal advocates whose work involves fighting the criminalization of homelessness, have engaged law firms in Atlanta and across the country to review, discuss, and advocate against legislation designed to criminalize homelessness.

We need national momentum to turn the tide against criminalization and instead, toward evidence-based approaches that we know actually work. Hiding people who are struggling in jails is not the answer–it only makes the solution more expensive over time and limits the potential of individuals and communities.