Monday, June 2, 2008

Athens Becoming Hub for the Homeless

I read about this phenomenon in the Flagpole a while ago, but today's AJC has picked up on it now too, and it's worth talking about. (emphasis mine)

Athens Becomes a Hub for the Homeless:

Athens has become a regional hub for the homeless, say police and leaders of social service agencies. Homeless people from surrounding counties are routinely dropped off downtown, at Georgia Square Mall and at the Salvation Army.

Athens police Chief Jack Lumpkin said it's a national trend for suburban or rural counties to dump homeless people in urban counties. He said law enforcement officers from neighboring counties have been documented bringing people to Athens.

"In these other communities, I would suspect they are leading the person to believe their status will be better in the end," Lumpkin said. "That's how they get them to move of their own free will. This isn't illegal."

Athens police say they have videotaped Barrow County law enforcement officers dropping off homeless people in Athens, though Barrow is not the only county doing it.

Murray Kogod, chief deputy for the Barrow County Sheriff's Department, said that if there's such a video, "it's based on the fact that somebody asked for a ride. It's not our practice to dump or drop off anyone anywhere."

I'm not familiar with the practice of law enforcement officers carrying people across county lines who "ask for a ride," but maybe someone can clarify that for me.

Local leaders say the rise in homelessness causes several problems.

One hidden cost is health care. The two major hospitals, Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary's Hospital, estimated $12 million was spent serving homeless adults in 2005.

The Downtown Athens Business Association, saying shoppers are accosted too often by people on the street, wants the local government to toughen its panhandling law.

"We need to revisit this ordinance and give people the tools they need to take care of this problem," said Tony Arnold, owner of Jackson Street Books. "Right now, it's far too permissive."

Statistics compiled by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department show that in 2006, there were 397 incidents in which the suspects identified themselves as homeless, said criminal analyst David Griffeth.
And that gets to the other "hidden" cost of this kind of practice: incarceration. The homeless, many suffering from mental illnesses of an often profound nature, end up incarcerated in the Athens-Clarke Jail, where costs for mental health services, psychotropic medications, and so on, extend well beyond normal incarceration.

Beyond the obviousness of getting the homeless the help they need, there are real issues of public safety, health care and mental health care involved which stretch already thin resources here in Athens. Eradicating homelessness is a laudable goal and something we should all be involved in, but using law enforcement agencies to "dump homeless people" on other jurisdictions is simply unacceptable.

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