U.S. Supreme Court’s anti-camping ruling raises issues for homeless in Georgia

In January, Antwan Slaton bundled up while sleeping on a sidewalk in Atlanta. Slaton spent the night on South Rhodes Center in Midtown at a time when morning temperatures were in the upper teens and lower 20s across the metro Atlanta area. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

In January, Antwan Slaton bundled up while sleeping on a sidewalk in Atlanta. Slaton spent the night on South Rhodes Center in Midtown at a time when morning temperatures were in the upper teens and lower 20s across the metro Atlanta area. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling that OKs anti-camping laws will lead local governments in Georgia to try to crack down further on people who are homeless, social services providers predict.

One rub: There’s a shortage of places for the homeless to go.

“We cannot ticket or arrest people out of homelessness,” said Mariel Risner Sivley, the housing director for St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, which provides housing, food and health support for those in need.

The high court’s June 28 decision, which reversed an appeals court ruling that had prevented an Oregon city from enforcing restrictions on people sleeping or camping in public places, “will have an immediate impact” on the actions of local governments in Georgia, Sivley said.

She predicted more communities will enforce existing bans — dozens already exist around the state — or create new ones that fine and potentially incarcerate people who sleep in public places, even when there are no local shelter spaces available.

Many communities around the state and nation have struggled in recent years with people sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, in public parks and along streets. There have been complaints about public health, safety and garbage from metro Atlanta to small south Georgia towns.

Earlier this year, the city of Atlanta cleared encampments under some bridges after a rash of fires damaged roadways and scrambled traffic. In some cases, police threatened to arrest people for criminal trespass if they didn’t move. Dozens of the inhabitants were moved into housing as part of city programs, but others resisted and dozens are believed to have simply shifted to other spots.

Ralph Hickox, who is mayor of Jesup in southeast Georgia, said he’s glad the Supreme Court allowed anti-camping laws.

The city of 10,000 approved just such a law last year, along with prohibitions on panhandling, as the number of homeless people living along streets, in wooded areas and in abandoned buildings ballooned.

“Letting them live on sidewalks is not a solution,” the mayor said. He said there were issues with drugs, feces, trash and complaints from people generally feeling unsafe.

Still, the anti-camping laws are “not a true answer,” he said. “You have to have the opportunity for them to go to get better and that is what we are lacking. We are lacking true answers.”

He said he believes most of those who were homeless in Jesup traveled to other cities or went deeper into surrounding woods. Most, he suspects, are grappling with mental illness and remain unsheltered and without the help they need.

He convened service providers, elected officials and others with hopes of devising another option. One key idea they’ve pitched was to get federal and state help to convert shuttered state prisons into places where people could get mental health services and come and go freely. So far that hasn’t happened.

“We can’t take on that challenge just by ourselves,” Hickox said. “We need the federal government and state to step in and help us.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling let stand laws in Grants Pass, Oregon, that barred sleeping or camping in a variety of public places. Opponents had sued, pointing out that the city didn’t have any low-barrier shelters for homeless individuals, and contending that the city was criminalizing people for being homeless. They claimed the law violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The majority decision by the high court said the punishment in the law wasn’t cruel and unusual and that the ordinance didn’t solely apply to homeless people. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that homelessness “is complex” and that a “handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review this year showed more than three dozen Georgia communities — including Atlanta, Gwinnett County, Marietta and Roswell — with laws that limit sleeping in public places. Many were written or expanded just in the last five years.

Last year, state politicians approved a law to try to force city and county governments to enforce anti-camping laws if they already had one in place.

Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, who sponsored the legislation, said he hadn’t yet read the Supreme Court’s ruling and didn’t know yet what its effect will be in Georgia. He said he and his colleagues don’t want people who are homeless and sleeping outdoors to be arrested or fined. Instead, he praised city of Atlanta efforts to provide new housing options for people who are homeless — such as using retrofitted shipping containers.

In Georgia, he said, “all communities are trying to find a place for homeless people to go,” and more are needed.

A city website for Summers’ south Georgia hometown directs people who are homeless to nonprofit shelters 40 miles away in Albany.

In Gwinnett, a metro Atlanta county with about a million residents, there are shelters for parents with children and, in some cases, individual women, but no low-barrier shelter to house individual men, though a small such shelter is planned. A county spokesperson said the local government distributes federal funding to a number of nonprofits each year to provide vouchers for short-term stays in local hotels and motels.

Cathryn Vassell, who heads Partners for Home, the city of Atlanta’s lead agency for dealing with homelessness, expressed concern about what might happen at the state level in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on anti-camping laws.

“We cannot use this ruling as an excuse to shift the burden of this human problem onto law enforcement,” she wrote in an email, adding that “criminalization” is not effective in reducing homelessness.

She wrote that Atlanta’s mayor is committed to developing housing solutions for people who are homeless.

Still, Atlanta continues to have an anti-camping law, which was put in place in 1996, the same year the city hosted the Olympics.

Devin Barrington-Ward, an activist who previously served on a Fulton County board that distributed federal funds for homeless services, spoke out before an Atlanta city council meeting earlier this week calling on leaders to eliminate the city’s law. He said he is concerned that future mayors might try to enforce it again.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to fix a typo about the 1996 Olympics.