Commission approves funding for proposed homeless shelter, community partnership program

The Athens-Clarke County Commission has allocated almost $3 million to homeless service agencies to implement their strategic plan to reduce and prevent homelessness. Half of the funding will go towards a proposed low-barrier homeless shelter designed to accept residents turned away by other shelters.

The commission also funded various community partner organizations, delayed a decision on fire station #5 site selection and approved additional funding for an unarmed 911 responder team of social workers.

This commission meeting was held at the Board of Education offices on Prince Avenue due to security concerns after a major disruption at last month’s meeting. Commission meetings will be back at city hall as soon as the century-old building can be retrofitted with enhanced security.

Table of Contents

Homelessness strategic plan funding
Community Partnership Program recommendations
CDBG funding delayed
Fire station #5 delayed, again
Non-Police 911 responders

Homelessness strategic plan funding

The commission allocated almost $3 million of federal American Rescue Plan funding to various homeless services agencies through a competitive process in accordance with their strategic plan to reduce and prevent homelessness. ACC staff recommended that the nonprofit Advantage Behavioral Health Systems receive most of the available funding which they will use to continue an encampment crisis response team and help build a new homeless shelter. 

The proposed shelter is described as “low barrier,” meaning it won’t discriminate against those with a history of drug use. In fact, Advantage Behavioral says they will prioritize those “demonstrating high-risk behaviors” for the shelter because these individuals often have the deepest need but are rejected from shelters elsewhere.

The facility will have 60 beds and will cost $16 million in total. The local government will pay at most $1.5 million of that using federal American Rescue Plan funding. Advantage Behavioral will construct the shelter on their campus at 240 Mitchell Bridge Road. They hope to break ground in October to have the shelter up and running by November 2025.

Advantage Behavioral will also receive $200,000 to support an encampment crisis response team, a group that helps people living in unsanctioned encampments along the road to recovery. They provide hotel vouchers, recovery program fees, rent and security deposits on an individual basis as they strive to overcome the many different barriers that may be keeping people unhoused. 

Divas Who Win, Family Promise of Athens, Athens-Area Habitat for Humanity, Project Safe, the Athens Wellness Clinic and the Economic Justice Coalition will all receive awards to support projects including workforce training, housing renovation and prevention programs.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

The commission approved the funding in an 8-1 vote, with Commissioner Patrick Davenport voting in opposition. Commissioner Ovita Thornton was acting as mayor pro tem for this meeting and was unable to vote.

Davenport questioned some of the groups receiving funding, including the Economic Justice Coalition, an organization for which he has served as a board member for over a decade. The Economic Justice Coalition plans to train people experiencing homelessness to become certified nursing assistants as part of their Above and Beyond home care cooperative. Most commissioners supported the idea, but Davenport objected.

“The logistics of hiring homeless people from the street to go into people’s homes to care for people raises a lot of red flags,” Davenport said at the commission’s agenda-setting meeting in April. He apologized for this comment on Tuesday, saying “I misspoke and did not mean to offend any of our homeless population.”

Community Partnership Program recommendations

The commission also approved $871,000 of general taxpayer funds for various partner agencies including the Athens-Area Homeless Shelter, Envision Athens, the Athens Land Trust, the Athens-Area Diaper Bank, the Sparrow’s Nest and other agencies. The Athens-Area Homeless Shelter is the biggest recipient of funds with a $220,000 award. 

The ACC Vision Committee had recommended that the Athens-Area Homeless Shelter and three other organizations receive significantly less funding, but Commissioners Dexter Fisher, Jesse Houle and Melissa Link suggested taking $321,000 from the county’s “rainy day” fund balance to make up the difference. Other commissioners agreed, allowing these organizations to maintain the same level of local government funding as they received last year.

These community partners were previously called “independent agencies” in local government parlance and received annual funding due to their ongoing, close relationship with the local government. Starting this year, they are no longer guaranteed to get anything and will need to compete with other groups for a limited pool of taxpayer dollars. The commission feels a competitive process will be more transparent and fair to other nonprofits, some of which may not have been given a good reason why they were excluded from the program in years past.

Community Development Block Grant funding delayed

Another source of funding for local nonprofits, the federal Community Development Block Grant program, has been delayed for a week due to an unexpected funding cut. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development informed the local government on the very day the vote was scheduled that they were cutting the award by $170,000. 

ACC Manager Blaine Williams asked that the vote be delayed until May 13 so he could find a way to supplement the budget. The commission agreed.

Fire Station #5 delayed, again

The commission delayed approving the criteria for choosing a new location for fire station #5 until next month. This is yet another delay for the construction of the new fire station, which has become a controversial project.

The commission rejected candidate sites for the new fire station in November, causing the site selection committee to start from scratch and draft another set of criteria for the new site. Regardless of their efforts, the ideal location for the new station is determined primarily by the need to expand fire department services throughout the county. Currently, the southeast side of Athens is in need of fire service. Sites in this area will always top the list no matter how the criteria are tweaked.

That’s a problem, because residents along Morton Road and Old Lexington Road don’t want a fire station in their neighborhood. In November, they lined up during public comment to express concerns about traffic, noise, light pollution and the possibility of damaging wildlife habitats if a fire station was built nearby.

Complicating matters further, some commissioners oppose the potential use of eminent domain to purchase property for the fire station, which may end up being necessary. Davenport, who represents the southeast side, asked to delay the vote for a month so he can consult with fire department officials about widening the search area to find a more suitable site for all parties involved.

Non-police 911 responders

The commission voted unanimously to approve $155,000 to fund the local government’s non-police alternative response team through the end of June. 

This team of unarmed licensed social workers is dispatched through the 911 system in place of police for calls involving mental health issues when a law enforcement response is not needed. This team offers medical treatment, peer counseling and follow-up supportive services regarding behavioral health. They supplement the work of the related Jerry NeSmith Co-Responder Teams which pair a social worker with a police officer.

From March 2023 through March 2024, the alternative response team has answered 95 calls, sometimes dispatched by 911 operators and sometimes called to the scene by a co-responder team.

Until now, this team has been funded through the American Rescue Plan. With the gradual drawdown of federal funds, Williams did not recommend the program in his draft of this year’s budget. However, Mayor Kelly Girtz’s budget draft did include the program and it appears the commission is also supportive of it based on this vote.

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