City DopeNews

Commission Approves $3 Million in Funding for Homeless Service Providers

Credit: Adria Carpenter/file

The Athens-Clarke County Commission allocated almost $3 million last week to homeless service agencies to implement 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 it will use to continue a crisis response team and contribute to a previously approved mental health facility designed to accept residents turned away by other agencies.

The facility is described as “low barrier,” meaning it won’t discriminate against those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, as long as the residents don’t endanger others. In fact, Advantage said it will prioritize those “demonstrating high-risk behaviors” because these individuals often have the deepest need but are rejected from shelters elsewhere.

The facility will have 60 beds and cost $16 million in total. Besides the $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding designated May 7, Advantage has also received funding from state grants and voter-approved SPLOST 2020 sales taxes. Advantage will construct the shelter on its campus on Mitchell Bridge Road—the former Clarke County School District headquarters Advantage purchased in 2016. Construction is scheduled for October and expected to take a little over a year.

Advantage will also receive $200,000 to support a crisis response team that helps people living in unsanctioned camps find housing and other assistance. The team provides hotel vouchers, recovery program fees, and rent and security deposits on an individual basis as recipients strive to overcome barriers to permanent housing. 

Divas Who Win, Family Promise of Athens, Athens-Area Habitat for Humanity, Project Safe, the Athens Wellness Clinic and the Economic Justice Coalition are other groups that received awards to support projects that include workforce training, housing renovation and homelessness prevention programs.

The commission approved the funding in an 8-1 vote, with Commissioner Patrick Davenport voting in opposition. In Mayor Kelly Girtz’s absence for a planned vacation, Commissioner Ovita Thornton was acting as mayor pro tem 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 its Above and Beyond home care cooperative.

“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 last month. He apologized for that comment last Tuesday, saying, “I misspoke and did not mean to offend any of our homeless population.”

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 they received annual funding for providing essential services. Starting this year, they are no longer guaranteed funding, instead competing with other groups for a limited pool of taxpayer dollars. Commissioners felt that 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 in years past.

Decisions on another source of funding for local nonprofits, the federal Community Development Block Grant program, have 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.

The commission also delayed approving the criteria for choosing a new location for Fire Station No. 5 on the Eastside 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 all of the candidate sites in November, causing the site selection committee to start from scratch and draft another set of criteria for the new site. The ideal location for the new station is determined primarily by the need to expand fire department services throughout the county. Currently, the Southeastern portion of Athens is outside of the boundary for acceptable response times. 

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 were 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 area, 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.

In other business, 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 ARPA. 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.This commission meeting was held at the Board of Education meeting room on Prince Avenue due to security concerns after a major disruption at last month’s meeting. Commission meetings will be back at City Hall by August, after the 110-year-old building is retrofitted with enhanced security.