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ACC Commission Approves Homeless Camp, Eviction Program

Athens-Clarke County will spend a combined $5 million on a campsite for the homeless and an eviction prevention program despite concerns raised by ACC staff about two nonprofit contractors’ ability to do the job.

The ACC Commission voted unanimously last week to award $2.5 million to First Athenian Development Corp. to run the eviction prevention program, and voted 8–1 to award another $2.5 million to Athens Alliance Coalition to operate the homeless camp off Barber Street for 22 months, with Commissioner Mike Hamby dissenting and Allison Wright absent.

In a memo to commissioners, Manager Blaine Williams called Athens Alliance Coalition “a high-risk recipient of federal funds” that is “at high risk of noncompliance.” AAC has never received federal funding, has never been audited and has no grant or financial management in place, Williams said. He also raised other red flags: The organization currently has no paid staff, and 100% of the executive director and assistant director’s salaries will be billed to the county government, leaving them no time for other duties.

Commissioners decided to build the homeless camp last summer after learning that CSX Railroad planned to clear out a longstanding campsite near the greenway. Other camps are periodically cleared out by ACC Leisure Services and private property owners. Athens shelters don’t have the capacity to house everyone who needs shelter, and some unhoused individuals prefer not to abide by the rules shelters impose. A government-sanctioned campsite will provide more stability and better conditions, with meals, toilets, showers and security provided. 

“It’s one key piece of a very complicated puzzle,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said. “I am very heartened to see this body start to coalesce around a plan. I’m especially proud to live in a community that’s beginning to step out and become leaders in this state to try to tackle very, very large-scale and complex problems.”

Organizations that address homelessness are overtaxed, creating a backlog, Steven Mason, executive director of the Bigger Vision shelter, told commissioners. “Until we can build emergency beds and build capacity in that area, we need to address our need for emergency shelter, and the camp would expand that,” he said.

“When you start something new, everybody gets scared,” said Charles Campbell, a member of Athens Alliance Coalition. While other communities have established such camps, the idea is so new in Athens, as AAC founder Charles Hardy pointed out, that no one has experience in it. Hardy said he’s spent $32,000 out of his own pocket helping the homeless.

“Why don’t you just provide them with an apartment?” asked one woman, who didn’t give her name as required and went over her allotted time. With an occupancy of 50 people, the funding works out to $2,600 per person per month over 22 months, she said. “Nowhere does it say that you can stick people inhumanely next to a chicken factory.” Commissioner Carol Myers, though, said the cost for the tents themselves are in line with a typical campsite, and most of the funds are going to things like security and kitchen equipment.

As ACC has distributed an influx of federal funds related to the pandemic, some commissioners, like Hamby and Ovita Thornton, have said the funds go to the same organizations. Those groups generally have a strong record of providing services. But, “How do you get experience if you don’t give people an opportunity?” Thornton said.

Like AAC, Athenian First Development Corp. was the lone applicant for the eviction program. In October, Haylee Banerjee, director of the ACC Housing and Community Development, recommended putting the contract back out for bid to attract more applicants, but instead commissioners decided to renegotiate AFDC’s original $3.8 million proposal. Banerjee noted that AFDC has no experience with evictions, has never received federal funds, has never been audited, is charging to provide overlapping services others already offer, and had no staff just a few weeks before the contract’s Jan. 1 start date.

Both the eviction program and homeless camp will be funded with ACC’s $60 million share of the American Rescue Plan, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill Congress passed and President Biden signed in March. Some eviction funds could also come from nearly $1 billion the feds gave to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, most of which remains unspent. The federal funding adds more strings and an additional layer of oversight compared to using local tax dollars.

Banerjee also called into question the scope of the program. Many had expected a deluge of evictions after the Supreme Court struck down a federal eviction moratorium in August. It hasn’t happened, though. New eviction notices have been averaging about 100 a month, a “slight uptick” but well below the average of 250 a month before the pandemic started, according to HCD. An estimated 325 evictions in various stages are currently pending in Magistrate Court.

“I see both of these plans as one package,” Commissioner Russell Edwards said. “I’m just thankful that we’re doing something. We’re acting, but we maintain the flexibility to make changes.”

The commission dealt with a long agenda of 46 items during the five-hour meeting Dec. 7. Others include:

• approving an application for a $139,000 state grant to help fund the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force. Houle and Commissioner Mariah Parker opposed the grant. An op-ed written by Parker and published by the website Athens Politics Nerd saying that the task force perpetuates a racist war on drugs drew a lengthy response from Police Chief Cleveland Spruill defending the task force as protecting minority communities from gang- and drug-related violence. See for more.

• approving a roundabout at the intersection of West Broad Street and Hancock Avenue. 

• approving a 16-townhouse development on Pulaski Street, with Commissioner Melissa Link voting against it.

• approving $5 million worth of SPLOST-funded improvements at Bishop Park. The top priority is a new pool, because the park’s 45-year-old existing pool leaks 10,000 gallons of water per day. This will require closing the pool during the summer of 2023. Upgrading the playground is also a possibility if funds are available.