The reason homeless people are dropped off in Athens

When Denise, a woman experiencing homelesness living in north Georgia, got a Lyft from the hospital after being treated for a foot injury, she thought she was headed home. But after almost an hour of driving in what she knew was the wrong direction, she found herself in a strange city – Athens – barely able to walk and with no clue how to get back.

What could she do? She refused to get out of the car.

That’s when the driver called the police. He also contacted the Advantage Behavioral Homeless Day Service Center, the establishment where he was trying to drop Denise off. The police were eventually able to coax her from the car, and they left her in the capable hands of John Morris, the THRIVE Community Programs Team Lead for Advantage Behavioral Health.

Morris contacted the hospital, explained that they made a mistake and soon got Denise on an Uber back to north Georgia, which the hospital paid for. But why was she dropped off here in the first place?

The reason has to do with hospital protocols.

“Hospitals can’t just discharge someone back to the streets,” Morris told APN. “They have to discharge someone to an address, to a shelter. So if they don’t have anywhere to discharge someone to, they try to secure a shelter bed.”

Beds at homeless shelters can sometimes be hard to come by. In Denise’s case, the hospital had been trying to find her a bed nearby for three whole days before they finally sent her to Athens.

Houston Gaines
Houston Gaines (R)

It may have been an honest mistake, a miscommunication or perhaps they needed the bed for someone else and just decided to get rid of her. Whether or not the hospital had a better option, they won’t be able to do this again without breaking the law. Governor Brian Kemp recently signed a bill (SB 62) that prohibits hospitals from dropping off homeless people outside county lines, unless it’s their home county or at a shelter that has agreed to accept the individual.

State Representative Houston Gaines added this provision to the bill because he feels that social service providers and police resources in Athens are already stretched too thin.

“Other communities bring homeless individuals here and drop them off. It’s not fair for our community, it’s not fair for law enforcement,” Gaines said at a recent town hall meeting. “For some reason, Athens has been picked on and picked on, and we’re going to put a stop to that.”

How many homeless people are dropped off here?

According to Lieutenant Sheldon Greenland, a pastor and administrator with the Salvation Army, these kinds of drop offs aren’t all that common and don’t generally take up much of their time. The bigger issue is that their housing capacity is extremely limited, and if someone is dropped off without notice, they can’t provide much in the way of assistance.

“It doesn’t happen very often,” Greenland told APN. “Maybe one or two [a month]? We’ll discover them out there and we’ll have to try to get them to another location that can accommodate them. It’s not a big drain on our resources, like financially, but it’s very unfortunate. It leaves the person in a destitute position, and that’s an emotional drain when we see that happen.”

Ryan Hersh, Executive Director of Bigger Vision, says that his organization sees about four times as many of these kinds of drop offs, which sometimes happen with no notice at all.

“They just show up, and they may or may not have been told things about Bigger Vision, about the services we provide, that aren’t true,” Hersh said. “It’s pretty upsetting for people once they get here and realize what they were expecting is not the case. It’s extremely stressful for everybody, but mostly for the person who is dropped off. It’s not a good use of our resources.”

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How will the ban on drop offs be enforced?

Gaines said that he envisioned counties would enforce SB 62 by sending other counties a bill for homeless services. But it’s unclear how this would work in practice, especially if the issue is more about increased stress than financial resources. 

When asked if he would start sending bills to other counties, Greenland laughed, saying “It would be nice if they gave us some assistance, but I don’t know about the bill-sending portion (chuckle).” Hersh agreed, saying that he wouldn’t know who to invoice or how that would work.

Homeless service providers like Bigger Vision and the Salvation Army support the idea behind Gaines’ ban on drop offs, but they’d like to see it implemented differently. For example, they’d prefer more of an emphasis placed on helping the people experiencing homelessness, instead of focusing on financial resources, which are difficult to estimate and nearly impossible to bill as things stand today. As it is, drop offs in Athens are likely to continue because hospitals need a shelter bed to discharge homeless patients to, which may not be available in their home county.

In some cases, dropping people off outside their home county might even make sense, according to Morris.

“There are times it makes sense to connect them to services here. Madison county does not have any homeless services really. Barrow county has I think one shelter that is really small. Our immediate surrounding counties, I think it makes sense to help those people. But when we’re talking about a community that has the capacity for homeless services, but are not expanding on those services, that’s the issue that needs to be highlighted,” Morris said.

Until homelessness becomes more of a priority for different county governments across the state and for the state government itself, Athens will remain a regional hub for services. That means there will be a need for out-of-county hospitals to continue dropping people off here, and SB 62 won’t do much to change that.

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