In any U.S. metropolis of significant size, homelessness is an ongoing and tragic problem. There are many factors that could lead to someone becoming homeless. It is only natural that there are legitimate ways that you can help. The new Georgia state senator’s proposal is particularly unproductive and draconian.
Carden Summers (a Republican) proposed the bill, called “Reducing Street Homelessness Act of 2022.” The bill specifically targets funds from the American Rescue Plan, which provided $5 Billion to States for housing assistance and homeless shelters. Summers’ bill says that “no money received under the program” by any state agency may be used “for the construction or purchase permanent supportive housing to the homeless.”
Future grants will be tied to “all state laws and local laws that prohibit unauthorized camping or sleeping in public”. The law, if passed would take effect January 1, 2023. Beginning six months later, on July 1, “any municipality with a per capita level of homelessness…higher than the state average that refuses to enforce” the camping and sleeping-in-public laws “shall receive no further grants of any kind…for public safety.” Further, the grants will not be given to any nonprofit that is located in such municipalities until homelessness falls or the municipality enforces these laws to their satisfaction.
The bill basically holds cities and towns hostage to public money unless they comply with state demands. Putting aside the inherent difficulty in even accurately calculating the homeless population—let alone solving the variety of problems that can cause homelessness—it seems egregious to withhold funds from nonprofits due to factors that are completely out of their control.
Most of the media attention surrounding this bill has focused upon its absurdity. But there is a more pernicious element to it as well: While the bill bars funds from being used to build supportive housing, it contends that a city or town “may dedicate up to 25 percent of its Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funds…to the creation of homeless outreach teams.” Federal program The Byrne Grant is “designed to support various activities that prevent, control and improve the criminal justice systems.” The bill states that the “contracted security officers” and police officers should form homeless outreach teams. They should also be social workers or mental health specialists and focus on removing homeless people from streets and shelters.
Although this sounds reasonable and even kind, it has a disturbing past of negative outcomes that could result from police forcing homeless people to interact with them. New York City was a city where homeless protested the possibility that the mayor would force them to shelters despite the freezing conditions.
Homelessness is not an easy problem. In particular, the focus on mental health problems that could lead to homelessness might ignore the fact that zoning laws can drive up housing costs and render it unaffordable. It is up to each municipality to determine how they want to use their resources to provide the best services for residents within their borders. A state withholding funds from municipalities and towns as well as from organizations not affiliated with the state, on the premise that they know best, not only is it unconscionable, but it can also be counterproductive.