Homeless camp hailed as model program state

Legislation that would create homeless camps on public and private properties in Georgia is modeled after Shinnah Haven in Douglas County. Charles Branson, far right, and others take part in outreach efforts for the local homeless population.

Proposed legislation that would create homeless camps on public and private properties in the state was modeled after Douglas County’s homeless camp.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, introduced legislation that would send state dollars currently earmarked for building shelters and short-term housing to be used instead on so-called “structured camping facilities” for a city or county’s homeless population.

The plan was met with much debate during a General Assembly committee meeting last week.

Many homeless advocates praised the proposed legislation while opposers pointed out that money would be stripped from shelter-based programs to fund the new setup.

“There is no doubt this is a little out-of-the-box,” Dempsey told the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. “It’s creative [and] it’s a different way than we’ve done it.”

Charles Branson, vice chair of the Douglas County Homeless Coalition, called it a good start, but said finding stable housing is the key to eliminating homelessness.

“This is a temporary thing,” Branson said of the local camp. “Housing is first. It is the gold standard.”

Much like the set-up at the county’s Shinnah Haven, Dempsey’s bill calls for water, electrical outlets and bathrooms for a six month period for a homeless person. The facility would be reserved for those that are motivated to find work and secure permanent housing.

Branson said there are currently 18 men living in the Shinnah Haven, which has tents set up on pallets with a tarp over it. There is a solar panel, microwave, coffee maker and running water.

The men live under strict rules that prohibit drug use and alcohol consumption among other rules contained in three pages.

“It works out well,” Branson said. “We have had to put some people out. We try to provide something that is not a problem or embarrassment to the county. Most people only need to be there a short time as some are just coming out of jail.”

Superior Court Judge Beau McClain is a proponent for a state-wide program much like Shinnah Haven.

“We need to start this in the state of Georgia before [unsheltered homelessness] gets out of hand,” McClain said. “It’s practical to not bring these people to the [emergency room and] to not house them in jail. It’s a practical solution to the problem.”

In addition to the camps, Dempsey’s bill also proposes requiring cities with homeless populations larger than the state average to spend a chunk of state and federal grants to create outreach teams made up of police, social services workers and mental health professionals tasked with moving people from illegal street camps to sanctioned homelessness services.

Some homeless advocates say some camps, especially the larger ones in places like San Francisco, have done little to curb the homeless population.

Cathryn Marchman, chief executive officer for the group Partners for HOME, an Atlanta-based group, said sanitation problems have arisen from such camps.

Branson points out that the Douglas County camp is equipped for trash cans and enforces strict rules.

“It’s cleaner than any state park camp ground,” Branson said.