Anti-camping laws in Georgia tested by U.S. Supreme Court homeless case

High court heard arguments on whether a community that does not offer shelter space with low barriers to admission can bar a person from sleeping in public places
In January, Antwan Slaton bundled up as best he could in Atlanta as temperatures dropped into the teens. Slaton spent the night on a concrete sidewalk outside the South Rhodes Center in Midtown. (John Spink /

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

In January, Antwan Slaton bundled up as best he could in Atlanta as temperatures dropped into the teens. Slaton spent the night on a concrete sidewalk outside the South Rhodes Center in Midtown. (John Spink /

Ordinances in a small West Coast city could scramble the lives of homeless people in Georgia and the powers of community officials to control where they sleep.

Dozens of local governments here — from Gwinnett County, Roswell and Marietta to the northern and southern ends of Georgia — have laws banning sleeping outdoors that appear similar to those in faraway Grants Pass, Oregon.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Grants Pass’ push to let its law stand, after an appellate court cut it down. The nation’s high court could rule in the case before recessing in late June.

At issue is whether a community that does not offer shelter space with low barriers to admission can bar a person from sleeping in public places, even if the person has just a blanket, rather than a tent.

Around the nation, some government officials grappling with people who have set up encampments have suggested that laws like those in Grants Pass are crucial ways to protect public health and safety.

For some advocates of homeless services, and a federal appellate court in the West, enforcing the Grants Pass ordinance violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments,” because they say the law criminalizes the status of a person being homeless, rather than their conduct.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of online city and county ordinances, news accounts and government reports showed more than three dozen Georgia communities with laws that limit sleeping in public places. Some of the restrictions have been in place for a decade or longer. But many others were created or expanded in the last five years, during a time when housing affordability worsened.

Meanwhile, state legislators passed a new requirement last year pushing cities and counties to enforce any existing ordinances barring camping or sleeping outside.

Dwight “Ike” Reighard, the chief executive of MUST Ministries, which operates a shelter in Cobb County, said he listened to some of the Supreme Court’s hearing. What worried him is that a ruling in favor of Grants Pass could have a ripple affect of enforcing more such laws in Georgia and around the nation.

While issues of homelessness are a huge problem, he said, criminalizing people for sleeping outside “does not seem like a very humane way to treat our fellow human beings.”

Two years ago, the Marietta nonprofit, which serves a 10-county area, sharply increased its shelter size with sleeping space for nearly 180 people. And by leveraging other housing, hotel rooms and space with churches, the organization supports an average of more than 500 people a night with shelter, Reighard said.

Still, there isn’t enough shelter to serve everyone who is homeless in the area, he said. So enforcing more urban camping restrictions is likely to fill up more area jails, he said.

Atlanta Police and state of Georgia personnel clear a homeless encampment in February.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

The penalties for violations vary in Georgia. Some carry fines of $100, which advocates suggest is already beyond the means of many who are homeless. Others, including Gwinnett and, in south Georgia, Wayne and Glynn counties, are punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and as many as 60 days behind bars. Some of the laws allow police to confiscate personal possessions stored in public places.

Unlike the situation in Grants Pass, some Georgia communities, including the city of Atlanta, have local shelters with low barriers to entry. That may allow them to keep anti-camping ordinances on the books, depending how the Supreme Court rules.

Often, government leaders and police have said their goal isn’t to lock up people who are homeless but to encourage them to come in off the streets.

The Roswell Police Department issued just nine citations last year for violations of the local urban camping ordinance, spokesman Tim Lupo wrote in an email. “The majority of instances in the city of Roswell are handled with a warning, education about the requirements of the ordinance, and referrals to available resources rather than a citation.”

In Marietta, police spokesman Chuck McPhilamy said he isn’t aware of any citations being written for violations of the sleeping restrictions. People who are sleeping outside are given a warning period of 24 hours to pack up and relocate. The focus of everything the city has done “is to strike a human balance,” he said.

“Just like any other city in America, you would be able to find someone, somewhere in the city living in a tent,” he said, until officers get complaints and respond.

About 10,700 people experienced homelessness in Georgia in 2022, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data. That was only about half as many people compared with a decade earlier, but it was up from just before the pandemic.

Rural Georgia also is grappling with homelessness. Jesup, a city of about 10,000 people, approved anti-camping and anti-panhandling measures last year in response to complaints about increased crime and unsanitary encampments.

Mayor Ralph Hickox said Jesup has tried to steer people to resources. But the southeast Georgia community doesn’t have a regular shelter or enough mental health resources.

He thinks “very few” of the 200 or so people who were homeless before the ordinances were passed are now housed. Instead, he suspects most shifted to other communities with fewer restrictions. Others, he said, just slipped deeper into nearby woods.

The city of Atlanta, with the largest reported population of people who are homeless in the state, has an ordinance banning camping, sleeping, storing personal belongings, making fires or cooking on streets, sidewalks or rights-of-way. Elected officials expanded the prohibitions to include areas under bridges and overpasses in the wake of a 2017 fire that led to the collapse of a section of Interstate 85.

Often the city hasn’t enforced the restrictions. Earlier this year, though, in the wake of continued fires, Atlanta began a new push to clear people from bridges and overpasses.

Pricilla Williams has been homeless since 2015 and spent the day near the on-ramp to the downtown connector on Fulton Street drying her wet clothes in the sun. Williams, interviewed in February, says she usually spends the night under bridges in the city of Atlanta and no longer has access to the medical care she needs for medications. At the time, the city was on the verge of a massive new effort to clear homeless people from living under bridges. (John Spink /

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

While officers pressured people to leave, the city opened up a new shelter to house some of those displaced. Social services workers offered the prospect of a path toward longer term subsidized housing and other resources. That, and the existence of other shelters in the city, might legally insulate Atlanta if the Grants Pass ordinance is ruled unconstitutional.

People who have worked on issues of homelessness for years often highlight the complexity of the efforts. Many who are homeless are dealing with mental health issues, and lack health care coverage. Others wrestle with substance abuse and addictions. Then there’s the issue of not enough shelter space or affordable housing.

Cathryn Vassell, who heads Partners for Home, the city of Atlanta’s lead agency for dealing with issues of homelessness, suggested laws that threaten people with fines and jail time for sleeping outdoors aren’t helpful.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” she wrote in an email to the AJC. “For a person who is homeless, an arrest only exacerbates their situation, making exiting homelessness even more complicated —losing their belongings forcing them to start the identification navigation process all over again, new court appearances, getting disconnected from their outreach worker, losing a shelter bed they may have had, and a now tarnished background check.”

The Atlanta Police Department “has made it clear that homelessness is not a crime,” she wrote, and she expressed confidence that the city will continue to focus on solutions. But with the Grants Pass case before the Supreme Court, “the impact for our country and communities around the country could be devastating, reversing years and years of empirical data showing homelessness is a housing problem and distracting our very limited time, energy and resources.”

A man who only gave his nickname, Tattoo, lived at The Hill, a large encampment of homeless people on state property in Atlanta near the intersection of Buford Highway and Lenox Road. In 2022, a large brush fire raged across much of the Hill, destroying shelters. Officials later cleared people from living in the area. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

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Credit: Matt Kempner