Brookhaven Police know Gregory Brian Moody well. He has a DeKalb County arrest record going back four years, featuring charges including public drunkenness, carrying an open container of alcohol, soliciting and loitering.
The day before Thanksgiving, Moody was arrested for “urban camping” in Brookhaven, accused of violating an ordinance the city had adopted in March.
The city’s urban camping ordinance outlaws the “improper use of public spaces,” including erecting tents or other temporary structures or objects providing shelter; sleeping in a single place for more than one hour at a time; cooking or preparing meals; or other similar activities. Similar ordinances exist in Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Buckhead, which is covered by Atlanta’s ordinance.
City officials say the ordinances keep homeless people from setting up permanent residences on unused property, but critics say they’re intended to make homeless people disappear.
“They are designed to sweep homeless people off the streets and put them in jail,” said lawyer Gerry Weber. “The cost to the taxpayers is significant.”
Weber, then an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, won a class-action legal challenge in 1997 that led to revision of the “urban camping” law in Atlanta. He said one of the nine people in the 1997 lawsuit was a college student who failed classes because he was arrested for urban camping and another was an employed homeless person who lost a job after being jailed for urban camping in Atlanta.
He said the way the ordinance was written meant anyone lying down in a public park could be arrested, but only homeless people were being targeted. Weber said these ordinances violate their constitutional rights.
Taking homeless people to jail isn’t what some city officials said they mean to do first. But that doesn’t always work. “Ultimately, we can’t force [Moody] to seek help from outside resources,” said Carlo Nino, a spokesman for the Brookhaven Police Department.
Nino said Moody’s urban camping arrest occurred after the manager of a food store on Buford Highway called police recently after his warnings didn’t deter local homeless people from living on the business’ property.
On Nov. 26, the police officer on patrol decided to check the rear of the property behind the store and a gas station and found violators, including Moody, Nino said. Moody was arrested and charged with urban camping. He spent Thanksgiving in jail, before being released on his recognizance on Nov. 28. He could not be located for an interview for this article.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said his previous work as the assistant secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development gives him perspective on dealing with the problems associated with poverty. He said that homelessness is a symptom of a larger problem, so programs should work toward resolving underlying issues of mental illness, addiction or poverty associated with couples who divorce.
“We don’t have the ordinance to put them in jail,” Paul said. “The first thing we try to do is get them to social services. If you can keep them from becoming homeless, that’s a better action.”
When Brookhaven police officers first encounter homeless people, police urge them to take advantage of resources and shelters in nearby Atlanta, Nino said.
“Urban camping is not a severe problem in Dunwoody,” Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan said. “However, we do have occasions where there are issues, and we deal with each incident based on the specific circumstances of each case. For most, we try and refer them to the appropriate agency or have them move on. Occasionally, we have to make an arrest.”
Dunwoody resident Jenny Carter said she’d prefer her tax dollars go to programs that provide a hand up rather than to fund incarcerations. As the director of finance at Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Carter said people in need of resources can find help, if they ask.
Carter said she wishes government officials would learn from agencies such as Family Promise of North Fulton, which she sees as the area’s primary initiative to help the homeless in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.
“Their first stops are usually to food banks and then, once those folks hear their stories, that’s when they know to refer them to other programs,” Carter said.
Dunwoody UMC has a food pantry where anyone can come once a month and pick up a box of food, she said.
“When people come in and ask for help, we want to get them from food to transitional housing to employment,” she said, describing how the cycle of poverty often means suffering from late fees on rent and utilities that create more debt. “We always wonder if there’s a better way. It’s a tough cycle. They have to miss work to apply for help.”