Homelessness in Athens: What should we do about it?

The ACC Commission is currently reviewing a new strategic plan to reduce and prevent homelessness created by the Cloudburst Group in collaboration with the ACC government and a team of local advisors from the nonprofit and healthcare communities. The plan will establish the goals, performance metrics and tentative budgeting for a comprehensive, coordinated approach to tackle the issue, if the commission votes to approve it.

Armed with $5 million in American Rescue Plan funding, Athens is poised to take perhaps the most significant action to address the problem of homelessness that it has in history. Unfortunately, the situation is quite serious and has only gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Table of Contents

The problem
The plan

How much will this cost?
The commission weighs in
Next steps

The problem is getting worse

No matter how you measure the issue, it’s clear that more people are experiencing homelessness now in Athens than they have in recent years. According to the “point-in-time” count, an annual count of all homeless people both sheltered and unsheltered, 61% more people are experiencing homelessness now (342 people) than they did in 2018 (212 people).

A comparison of PIT counts in Athens and across the state
Figure 1 of the report shows a comparison of point-in-time counts in Athens and across the state.

But the point-in-time count is considered a significant underestimate of the annual number of people experiencing homelessness due to the rate at which people become homeless and the general difficulty in counting everyone. According to the homeless management information system, a local database used by homeless providers, there were 4,679 unique enrollments in various services in 2022, showing that the problem is an order of magnitude greater than the point-in-time count indicates. 

Both measurements show a rapid increase in homelessness recently. Similar to the point-in-time count, service enrollments were 22 percent higher in 2022 than the year before.

Interactions with law enforcement have also greatly increased over the past few years. In 2018, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department reported 987 calls for service involving homeless subjects. Just a few years later in 2022, that number grew to 4,759.

Calls for service to ACCPD related to homeless individuals by year
Calls for service to ACCPD involving homeless subjects by year.

The vast majority (95%) of these calls to police were for non-violent crimes like trespassing or for non-offenses like seeming suspicious, but one in twenty calls were for violent crimes like battery, threats or assault. 

By all metrics, we have a large and growing problem with homelessness in Athens, one that is growing faster here than it is in other parts of the state. That’s partially because we have more services for people experiencing homelessness here which tend to attract those who need help. Making matters worse, sometimes homeless people are even dropped off in Athens against their will

However, most of Athens’ problem with homelessness comes from inside, not outside, our borders. In this year’s point-in-time count, only 13 percent of people living unsheltered here had been in town for less than six months. Over half had been living in Athens-Clarke County for over six years. Whether you consider that long enough to count as being a true Athenian or not, they live here now and it’s up to us to accommodate them one way or another. 

Unlike our namesake from ancient times, modern Georgia counties have no legal means at their disposal to expel US citizens permanently. Even if we did, it would not likely be supported by a majority of voters here to put it mildly.

Like it or not, it’s up to us to deal with this problem with some help from the federal government. That’s why the commission chose to fund the creation of a strategic plan.

The plan to turn things around

The Cloudburst Group gathered data, interviewed representatives of local service providers, surveyed business owners and students, held community listening sessions and talked to people experiencing homelessness themselves. They say the people they spoke with across the community mostly all agree that Athens needs comprehensive action to address this issue.

The first thing the plan wants to change is the level of coordination between homeless service providers. While providers here in town do communicate and have a loose structure under the Athens Homeless Coalition, the coalition currently relies on the ACC Department of Housing and Community Development for staffing needs. They don’t have any of their own staff at the moment. 

The plan recommends that the Athens Homeless Coalition be fully staffed. These new staffers will implement standards, strengthen relationships between providers and develop the organizational infrastructure needed to carry out the rest of the plan.

Next, the plan seeks to reduce the impact that living unsheltered has on people’s physical and mental health. It calls for greatly increased and better coordinated street outreach to connect people living unsheltered with resources to help them improve their lives. When possible, it also calls for “housing surges” under the control of a “housing central command” using a national disaster response model similar to the Built for Zero approach.

Of course, before you can “surge” people into housing, you have to have some housing available. That’s why the plan also calls for capacity improvements for Athens’ emergency shelter and transitional housing programs. These programs are intended as temporary solutions before the client could gain access to permanent housing, a situation intended to last for up to two years at most.

Currently, there just aren’t enough shelter and transitional beds for everyone who needs them. While the First Step sanctioned homeless encampment has helped somewhat with this problem over the past two years, First Step is scheduled to close in December and the plan does not advocate that it be continued. Even so, it argues that shelters with a very low barrier to entry like First Step are a key part of the solution to homelessness in Athens. 

Instead of a sanctioned tent city, the plan suggests the possible conversation of a hotel or motel into shelter units.

Going further, the plan calls for increasing access to permanent housing and also for preventing homelessness in the first place by preventing evictions. It recommends the creation of a support fund to help with one-time expenses that can prevent people from accessing housing such as security deposits and application fees. It also recommends developing relationships with some of the larger landlords and providing incentives to encourage them to accept risky tenants.

Finally, the plan calls for developing partnerships with employers and potentially expanding case management for some people even after they find housing as a way of increasing their chances of finding stability.

You can comment on the plan to reduce and prevent homelessness here. There is also a community forum planned for Wednesday, September 20 at the ACC Library from 11 am to 1 pm in multipurpose room B.

How much will this cost?

In the short term, the plan is mostly funded with $5 million from the American Rescue Plan, so the cost is not an issue at the moment. Going forward, some of the expense would be shouldered by the nonprofit organizations tasked with carrying it out, with the remainder funded by a combination of federal dollars, philanthropic funding and general fund dollars from the local government.

Exactly how many local tax dollars would be needed to make the plan sustainable after the American Rescue Plan funding runs out is not clear at this time. That depends on the capacity of Athens’ existing homeless service providers and how that may change as the plan unfolds. It’s possible that increasing cooperation among providers will lead to efficiencies that will make them more competitive for grants and other fundraising opportunities going forward.

It’s also possible that the local government will need to shoulder a large portion of the cost if we want this plan to continue for the long term.

The commission weighs in

This strategic plan to reduce and prevent homelessness imagines how many diverse service providers could come together with renewed purpose, coordination and almost militaristic efficiency to address a huge problem facing our town. But if the discussion at the commission work session on Tuesday is any indication, some ACC Commissioners aren’t keen to see this plan implemented.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

“I did not support this study,” said Commissioner Ovita Thornton who voted against funding the study originally. “I still don’t. I don’t think there’s a whole bunch of new stuff that I heard.”

She continued, wondering if spending money to address the issue might only make the problem worse. 

“On the internet, Athens is listed as one of the best places to live [for homeless people]. I’m wondering if money should not be allocated. We should almost be able to predict what the influx will be of [homeless] people coming here.” 

Even though the plan provides data showing that most people experiencing homelessness in town are actually from Athens, Commissioner John Culpepper spoke up to agree with Thornton.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of this is showing anything to prevent people from coming in,” he said. “We need to invest in that if we’re outpacing the rest of the state in our growth of homelessness.”

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

Commissioner Dexter Fisher also urged that more be done to keep people out of the county.

“We talk about people coming to our community, and they keep coming in,” he said. “How do we police that? I don’t want Athens to be the place where everybody feels that they can come and get resources and not get [financial] support from other communities [to help pay for homeless services here].”

After hearing these comments, ACC Manager Blaine Williams reminded commissioners that their ideas on how to address homelessness, if they have any, can also be included in the plan.

“It’s not the Bible on homelessness,” Williams said. “It doesn’t have silver bullets in it. But it is a collection of thoughts that is fueled and informed by people who live here, by folks who have expertise and who have seen things in other towns … If there’s something here that’s missing, if you have other ideas… we’d love to hear those. We can include those in there.”

ACC Manager Blaine Williams
ACC Manager Blaine Williams

Williams also addressed the desire of some commissioners to police homeless people who come in from out of town.

“In practicality, people are free to move around in this country … I think we’d need to be very careful about arresting a stranger in town,” he said.

Commissioner Jesse Houle objected to some of their colleagues’ comments, giving a passionate speech in defense of the plan and, more broadly, in defense of taking action to address the issue.

“There’s these assertions about this plan … that there’s nothing new here,” Houle said. “Let’s pretend for a second that we knew every single thing that this report would say. That somehow we all already knew it and agreed upon it… what would be new for this body would be to act on those recommendations! So if we agree that this is all so old and obvious that we don’t even need the report, then now we … can accept it and then we can put the money, that we’ve never put towards these things before, towards solutions.”

Next steps

Presumably, the commission will vote to accept the report, or not, at their October voting meeting. Typically, you’d expect such a vote to be unanimous since it does not involve spending any money by itself, only accepting a report. But anything’s possible and we’ll see what happens.

If they accept it, ACC staff will be free to start planning next steps like drafting the needed agenda items and searching for nonprofit partners to carry out the plan by issuing requests for proposals. That will probably be done in many different votes over the next year or so.

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