ACC Commission approves official homeless camp over strong opposition

The ACC Commission approved the creation of an official homeless encampment on Tuesday at the site of an old school on Barber Street in a controversial 5-5 vote. Mayor Kelly Girtz broke the tie in favor of the encampment, calling the measure a “necessary safety valve” as Athens struggles to accommodate an increased number of unhoused people.

Table of Contents

The background

The nation is currently facing an eviction crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shutdowns. While billions of dollars in federal relief have been distributed to the states with the intention of helping those impacted by the pandemic, the problem has not yet been solved. That’s in part because many states, including Georgia, have been slow in distributing rent relief money to those who need it.

Representative Coi Bush at a protest
Representative Cori Bush / Photo News 247 [CC BY-SA 3.0)

After the CDC’s eviction moratorium expired on August 1, Representative Cori Bush (D) protested by sleeping on the steps of the US Capitol for several nights, drawing a national spotlight to this issue. She was successful at pressuring the Biden administration to extend the moratorium, delaying the day of reckoning for this looming crisis until October 3.

Despite the federal protection given by that moratorium, Athens continues to have problems with homelessness locally. One reason is that the Bigger Vision homeless shelter is currently closed due to an outbreak of COVID-19. Another problem that has been worrying commissioners is that the CSX railroad company has announced their intention to evict a large homeless camp on their property off Willow Street.

Although the CSX eviction was delayed through the intervention of the Athens Alliance Coalition, as reported by Flagpole, Commissioners Jesse Houle and Mariah Parker feared that a new wave of homelessness was on the way at the same time current encampments were set to be disrupted. They reached out to the Athens Homeless Coalition with the beginnings of the plan which was finally approved this Tuesday. The plan was further developed by the coalition, who made suggestions and surveyed homeless residents to see if they would be interested in such a structured homeless encampment.

83% of those surveyed by the Athens Homeless Coalition said they would make use of such a camp if it was provided, indicating some support for the idea among the population it’s intended to help. 

But not everyone is happy about it.

Athens GOP leads barrage of opposition

The official homeless camp was bitterly opposed by the Athens GOP and other community members, who gave nearly two hours of public comment against the plan.

Gordon Rhoden, Chair of the Athens GOP, delivered a petition against the proposed camp containing 500 signatures. While saying he said he had no problem helping “hardworking Athens residents,” he claimed that most homeless people in Athens are not permanent residents of the city and instead “prefer a nomadic lifestyle.”

Rhoden and other community members express their opposition to the homeless camp.

Many community members expressed concern that the proposed camp would lead to a surge in Athens’ homeless population. “If you build it, they will come,” said one commenter. “This is nothing but a magnet to bring more people here.”

Others agreed, blaming the commission for “inviting poverty and crime to our community” with their “enabling” attitude. 

One commenter wondered if making life more bearable for the homeless would actually end up doing them more harm than good. “If a person doesn’t want to be helped, is there a logical way you can force them to want a wholesome life? Sometimes life has to get really uncomfortable for a person to come to the realization that there must be a better way.”

Lastly, some mistakenly believed that the government would be running the camp themselves, to which they objected, instead of giving money to the non-profit community to support increased services.

A few commenters spoke in favor of the camp as well.

The details of the proposed homeless camp

Before getting any deeper into the debate about the camp, let’s go over what’s being proposed and how much it will really cost:

What is actually being proposed?

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The ACC government will give a parcel of unused public land on Barber Street to a homeless provider chosen through an open request for proposals. This provider will use the property to operate and maintain a structured, outdoor homeless camp open to anyone who can abide by basic community rules (such as no fighting with or harassing other residents). The camp will be large enough to support 30 – 50 residents.

The Barber Street location was selected because it’s the only piece of land owned by the ACC government that’s at least 1000 feet away from all schools and child care centers while being near a bus line and having other required features. This will allow the most flexibility in the use of this site by the unhoused. For example, even those on the sex offender registry would be able to stay there legally.

Who would run and maintain the camp?

As stated above, a homeless services provider selected through a formal request for proposals would run the camp. The ACC government has neither the capacity nor the expertise to manage the project itself.

How much would the camp cost?

According to the commission’s agenda item, the camp would cost an estimated $1 – $1.6 million to establish and anywhere from $0.7 – $1.1 million in operational costs every year. However, it’s important to note that the camp is not intended as a long-term solution. Girtz was clear that he would not support a permanent camp at this location. 

Even if the camp did last for a year or more (the commission approved an operational period of 22 months with this vote), it would likely not cost anywhere near the amount listed, according to Brent Temple, social worker and community advocate. In a comment to APN, Temple described his experience with a similar encampment in Douglasville, GA which he describes as “the cleanest piece of outdoor land I have ever seen in my life.” This camp, which shelters 20 people on average, is run by volunteers with help from the residents themselves. 

The Douglasville camp costs only around $450 per month to operate, although some additional expenses are needed whenever something breaks or a new resident moves in, Temple said.

Athens Alliance Coalition logo

The Athens Alliance Coalition, a Black-led, all-volunteer organization, has already expressed interest in applying for the contract to run the camp. This means the expense should not approach the estimate given in the agenda item and might in fact be much cheaper.

Overall, Temple considered this proposal to be the “cheapest possible initiative with the highest cost savings in terms of trash pickup, emergency room visits and police service calls.”

With their vote on Tuesday, the commission approved $250,000 for site preparation. This might end up being a significant proportion of the total expense involved in the project, even if it’s possible the up-front cost could approach $1 million depending on the amenities included (see below).

All costs associated with this program will be reimbursed out of Athens’ portion of the American Rescue Plan.

What are the benefits of such a camp?

Tents in the proposed camp would be supported off the ground on pallets and would be shielded from the rain with waterproof tarps. This would significantly increase their lifespan while providing increased comfort for residents.

More importantly, the site would include porta johns, running water, bins for food storage and electrical outlets for charging phones. Facilities like porta johns are essential to the health of homeless residents. As Temple explained, “the deadly serious problem of diarrhea is nearly eliminated by the presence of a porta john.” He also claimed that “referrals to the emergency room for viral infections” would be “eliminated.”

Basic medical supplies, such as first aid and opioid overdose treatment (e.g. NARCAN) would also be available on site. Camp operators would receive training for how to administer these treatments. 

At times during the interview, Temple seemed to plead with opponents of the plan to engage more productively on the issue. “Where can [the homeless] go? I’ve heard people make objections but I haven’t heard anyone else raise a solution,” he said. Instead of forcing people experiencing homelessness to suffer and thereby reach bottom, he stressed that compassion was the better approach. 

“Handling the desperation draws people back up into the community as functioning members.”

Commissioners debate

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

Commissioner Jesse Houle, who authored an earlier resolution proclaiming housing to be a human right, called the current proposal a “stopgap measure” which would “provide a compassionate, sanitary and safe response to the dire situation that many people who live in this community are currently in.”

Houle’s urgency was echoed by Parker and Commissioners Melissa Link, Tim Denson and Carol Myers. But others seemed skeptical of the idea that an official homeless camp was the right approach, even if they acknowledged that something needed to be done.

Commissioner Allison Wright supported the creation of a strategic plan for how to address homelessness, which was included in Houle and Parker’s motion, but she did not support the homeless camp. Neither did Commissioners Russell Edwards, Ovita Thornton, Mike Hamby or Patrick Davenport.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Davenport asked for an audit of previous local government efforts to fight poverty and homelessness and questioned whether the money was being well-spent. He seemed to echo the sentiment of some who gave public comments, saying, “if we continue to support the problem, all we’re going to have is a continued problem.”

Thornton agreed with Davenport. “We’ve done so much to help the most vulnerable folk, and then we’re back in the same place. There doesn’t seem to be any accountability. There doesn’t seem to be a well laid-out plan.”

Houle rebutted, reminding their colleagues that $50,000 in funding for a multi-year strategic plan to fight homelessness is included in the proposal.

The vote

After Houle made their proposal to establish the homeless camp, Hamby made a counter-proposal, saying it would be cheaper and more humane to buy hotel vouchers for every individual at the Willow Street camp. Unlike Houle’s proposal, Hamby’s motion seemed to be conceived at the commission meeting itself and was not shared with his colleagues ahead of time, which is something he’s done before. While hotel vouchers are provided in emergency situations by some local nonprofits, it’s unclear how many of those currently at the Willow Street encampment would choose to take advantage of them, even if offered.

The commission rejected Hamby’s proposal in a 4-6 vote, with Houle, Parker, Link, Denson, Myers and Edwards voting ‘no.’ Edwards then made a motion to delay the decision for a month, which was soundly rejected in a 3-7 vote.

Attention then turned to Houle’s original motion to establish an official homeless camp at the Barber Street location. The commission was evenly split on this issue, as Edwards voted ‘no,’ joining Davenport, Wright, Thornton and Hamby.

Finally, Girtz broke the tie in favor of the camp.

Next Steps

ACC staff will prepare the site for conversion into a homeless camp over the next ninety days. But before it can be prepared, CSX may have already evicted those at the Willow Street camp as they are currently intending. However, it’s possible the commission’s action on this issue will encourage CSX to delay the eviction a second time, giving the new site a chance to be completed.

If CSX does carry through with the eviction, former residents of Willow Street will have to set up their tents somewhere else, maybe in the backyard of someone reading this. They may have nowhere else to go.

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