Alpharetta to ban homelessness

‘Urban camping’ law aims to clear streets

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. – There is a man who has been living in the shelter of the old gas station on South Main Street, across from Alpharetta’s City Hall. He is homeless and in a bad way – terminal cancer. He used to be a model resident of Alpharetta until his wife passed away. He gave up all his belongings to live on the streets. Now, the city is looking to move this man and others like him off its streets.

At their Nov. 19 meeting, the Alpharetta mayor and City Council approved the first reading of a new law that would make it a crime to set up “urban camps” within the city – that is, squatting in areas not specifically intended to allow squatters.

“This is a preemptive measure,” said Alpharetta Deputy City Administrator James Drinkard, who said there is not a large problem within the city, although there are known homeless people.

Surrounding cities, such as Roswell and Atlanta, have already passed their own legislation barring homelessness, and Alpharetta is concerned that the homeless from those cities might be pushed into its own city limits.

“Other cities are taking tougher stances,” Drinkard said, “and if we don’t step up and enact tougher ordinances, all those [homeless] folks will come here. Then we’ll have a problem on our hands.”

The new law would make it a crime to use public or private property for camping anywhere other than where camping is intended.

No “urban camping” would be allowed on public streets or parks or on private property without the owner’s permission. A verbal warning must be issued before a subject can be arrested.

“This gives the police more authority in situations that do involve urban camping,” City Attorney Sam Thomas said. “The loitering ordinances are not sufficient enough.”

In light of the worsening economy and the recent new laws of other cities, Alpharetta officials said they have seen an uptick in the numbers of homeless in the city.

“We have had a lot of citizens complain about homeless people,” Public Safety Director Gary George said.

He cited the old gas station on South Main Street, which is a popular spot to sleep, in plain sight of passers-by, and one instance of a homeless man attacking a resident.

George stressed the police would do everything in their power to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters or programs that could help them get back on their feet. That homeless man living under the gas station? An Alpharetta officer took it upon herself to find a shelter that would take him in and help him. Another officer found a veteran single mother living in her car with her child. They were given aid and set up in a program designed to get working families back on their feet.

But not everyone is homeless by fate; some chose to live the lifestyle of a bum.

“There are people out there who just want to be homeless,” Drinkard said. “They want to live that way. The ones who just chose to do that, those are the ones you end up having problems with.”

In most instances, George said the police would try and find a way to get any homeless they encounter into programs designed to get them back on their feet, or medical attention. Jail is not the reason for the law.

“[Putting them in jail] would be the very last resort,” George said. “It’s not about arresting them. It’s about actually helping them.”