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ACC Commission Approves Official Homeless Camp Site

A camp underneath the North Avenue bridge in 2020. Credit: Adria Carpenter

While there was some overlap, most of the speakers at City Hall were Republicans who came because they were “disgusted” by a proposal for a temporary city-sanctioned homeless camp.

With homelessness by all accounts worsening in Athens, a narrow majority voted to spend $250,000 on initial site prep work to open a camp on the grounds of a vacant school, as well as $50,000 on a comprehensive study of the issue. Mayor Kelly Girtz broke a tie, joining commissioners Mariah Parker, Melissa Link, Tim Denson, Jesse Houle and Carol Myers in supporting the proposal. Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Allison Wright, Russell Edwards, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby voted against it.

Girtz said he wouldn’t support a permanent standalone camp, but said it is a “safety valve” to provide basic human needs and protect property until a better solution is found.

A 2020 one-day count of homeless individuals found 67 completely unsheltered people in Athens, up 21% from the prior year, likely because of the pandemic. A count on July 30 found more than 150 people without a roof over their head, according to Girtz.

Over the past year or so, several homeless camps have been cleared out on both public and private property, according to county officials. Police have also reported an increase in crime at homeless camps. A spate of evictions is coming whenever the CDC moratorium expires or is thrown out in court. Next month, CSX Railroad is planning to have police clear out any camps along its tracks, including one off Willow Street near North Avenue, prompting Denson and Parker to suggest the idea of a city-owned camp. They argued that there was not enough time to establish permanent housing for displaced individuals. Shelters are full, and a recent survey of unhoused residents found that even if beds were available, some wouldn’t sleep there because they’re not allowed to bring their partners, pets or belongings, or they have addiction problems that prevent them from abiding by rules requiring sobriety. 

Gordon Rhoden, chair of the Athens Republican Party, presented the commission with a petition he said had 500 signatures in opposition to the plan. Opponents cast unhoused residents as drug addicts and alcoholics who are too lazy to work and enjoy a nomadic lifestyle.

“There are jobs out there,” said Suzanne Yeager. “There’s no excuse for laziness. We are just entitling people.”

They predicted that providing the camp would simply draw more homeless people to Athens.

“Everybody knows that other counties drop their homeless off here. It’s not the taxpayers’ responsibility to care for all of Northeast Georgia. Charity begins at home,” said Nancy Everett, who accused commissioners of “ruining our city.”

They also said the homeless are driving away businesses, taxpayers and visitors.

“If you move forward with this bill, the people who can afford to leave Athens-Clarke County will do so,” Sandra Nemetz said. “People do not want their tax dollars to fund an initiative that we already have nonprofits in place established to do so. Parents will stop enrolling their children at UGA, and fans will stop coming to the games, because of the impact of the homeless encampment.”

In support of the camp, Graham Jarboe said it will provide a sense of security. People won’t have to worry about being evicted or having their possessions stolen. Not building the camp, he added, won’t make them go away.

“These people are here,” he said. “They sleep somewhere every night.”

Sara Gehring said opponents had some good ideas, but “I lack a lot of respect for the ugliness, cowardice and ignorance present in others today.”

After reviewing more than 90 government-owned properties, county staff recommended the North Athens School, a long-empty building off Barber Street that ACC bought from the Clarke County School District in 2017 for an eventual expansion of the Beacham Water Treatment Plant. It was the only site that was on a bus line and far enough away from schools and daycares that people on the sexual assault registry could stay there.

Getting the building ready for 30-50 people to move in will cost an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million total, along with another $728,000 to $1.1 million to operate annually, mainly for staffing and security. A nonprofit will be chosen to run the facility, which is scheduled to open within 90 days and stay open for 22 months. ACC will use that time to work with service providers on a comprehensive plan to address homelessness.

John Morris, chair of the Athens Homeless Coalition, supported the camp, but said it has become bloated and politicized. “We are asking for a cheap, low-budget harm reduction facility so people can put up a tent and use a Port-a-Potty,” he said, suggesting a figure of $100,000.

Prior to the final vote, Hamby proposed putting displaced homeless people in hotel rooms instead. That was voted down, as was Edwards’ motion to table the issue for 30 days.

This post has been updated with additional details throughout.