Atlanta’s top advocate for the unhoused doesn’t believe the U.S. Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling on whether municipalities can criminalize homelessness will affect the city’s policies for its most vulnerable residents — but the results of the November presidential election almost certainly will.

The City of Grants Pass v. Johnson case asks whether a local government can impose civil and criminal penalties upon people for camping on public property (such as sleeping with a blanket) — or whether that constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Cathryn Vassell, the executive director of Atlanta’s homeless services provider, Partners For Home, said Wednesday that the city of Atlanta isn’t trying to criminalize homelessness, as in the Grants Pass, Oregon, case. Instead, her city agency works with Mayor Andre Dickens’ administration to ensure Atlanta has places to house people before uprooting homeless encampments.

The Supreme Court’s decision won’t change that, Vassell said during a Zoom press conference about the city’s annual headcount of its homeless population. “We have a community and an administration that’s been very committed to ensuring we have housing placements for people when we decommission an encampment.”

Homelessness in Atlanta has ticked up by 7% from last year, according to the annual Point in Time count required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). When Partners For Home conducted the count in January, a team of volunteers tallied 2,867 people living outdoors or in emergency shelters, up from 2,679 people in 2023.

Like many major cities, Atlanta takes a housing-first approach to getting people off the streets, which means access to housing isn’t contingent on first getting a job or treatment for substance use. Instead, Partners For Home aims to find safe, stable apartments and homes for unhoused residents and then provide wraparound services, like substance use help, healthcare, or jobs training, once people are settled.

“I think, regardless of what the Supreme Court says, we will continue to maintain that posture, and I have confidence that the [Dickens] administration will continue to do that as well,” Vassell said.

But she worries about a ripple effect if the Supreme Court decides local governments can legally fine or jail people for living outdoors — particularly with mounting public pressure to confront the nation’s homelessness epidemic.

“The danger is that [the ruling] could influence other communities and other administrations to take stronger positions on this, given the pressures that they are feeling as it relates to unsheltered homelessness and encampments in their communities, and pressures from their communities and stakeholders to move homeless people out of sight,” she said.

White House impact

The next presidential administration will have tremendous influence over policy and funding for local efforts to reduce homelessness, Vassell said. The Biden administration has followed a housing-first model, she noted.

While the previous Trump government didn’t cut funding for homelessness services, it did push a treatment-first approach, she explained, where publicly subsidized housing is contingent on first getting into treatment for substance use or finding a job. If former President Donald Trump gets reelected, she said, that same approach “could potentially reduce the amount of funding we could go after.”

That’s because HUD funds Continuum of Care [CoC] programs, like Partners For Home in Atlanta, for cities across the U.S. to rehouse people who are homeless.

“If it is not funding that is impacted [by the election], it could certainly be policy,” Vassell said. “In the funding application annually, HUD sets their policies for the year … and they say, ‘These are our priorities, and you local CoCs have to align with these priorities.’”

The last Trump White House installed new leadership at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Vassell said, “who really attempted to shift away from housing-first policies.”

“They tried to politicize housing-first, tried to indicate that it is not effective, and refuted the evidence base that is out there to suggest its efficacy,” she said. The White House homelessness council under Trump instead started to promote new policies “like in transitional housing, forcing individuals into treatment-first-type models,” she added, “that really have not performed well in our system.”

“We always want people to go to treatment if they desire,” Vassell emphasized. Partners For Home recognizes that people who struggle with alcohol or drugs often need help to get sober, she said, but the agency doesn’t want substance use disorders to prevent people from obtaining housing — particularly since having a stable place to live is often integral to recovery.

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