Advocates to Georgia panel: Arresting homeless won’t solve homelessness

Members of churches and other organizations that work with Georgia’s homeless people said police should stop arresting people for crimes such as camping or sleeping in public because it not only exacerbates whatever issue that person is facing, but also increases costs to the state.

Elizabeth J. Appley, a lobbyist with Presbyterians for a Better Georgia, told a panel of lawmakers and other experts studying ways to address homelessness that local governments have increasingly passed laws that lead to the arrests of people who, for example, sleep in public. Courts in other states and the U.S. Department of Justice have said doing so is considered “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“You can criminalize behavior, but not status,” she said. “What the court has found … is that when you criminalize sleeping in public when there are not enough shelter beds or when there aren’t shelter beds for people with disabilities or you’ve exceeded your maximum stay, then you are criminalizing status and its unconstitutional.”

Additionally, the cost of putting the homeless in jail is much higher than housing them and providing the necessary services, such as health care or counseling, she said.

“When you arrest and incarcerate homeless people because they’re mentally ill — because they don’t have the support services they need — you’re not only failing to address the underlying issue that causes homelessness, but you are doing it at a very expensive rate,” Appley said.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, who is serving as chairwoman of a study committee on homelessness, said often people who are homeless suffer from mental illness, addiction or both.

“It’s cheaper to take care of them than for them to be in and out of jail and in and out of hospitals and the criminal justice system,” the Buford Republican said. “It just makes sense to me.”

Officials from the state Department of Community Supervision told the committee that once inmates serve their time, many don’t have anywhere to go.

The state spends anywhere from $600 to $675 a month — ranging from three to six months — for things such as rent and mental health costs for each of 300 people who are on probation or parole and are homeless.

While the department partners with organizations to house 300 homeless people, they don’t meet the need. Assistant Commissioner Scott Maurer said the department estimates that about 700 of the 220,000 people in its care are homeless, leaving several hundred on their own to find somewhere to live.

The panel will meet two times in November, then it will submit recommendations to the Senate, which could include possible legislation.

>>RELATED: Meet the people of Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter<<

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