City DopeNews

Athens Homeless Coalition Hires Director as Number of Unhoused Hits New High

Homelessness in Athens has reached a new high this year, according to the Athens-Clarke County Continuum of Care’s annual point-in-time count. Almost 400 people experiencing homelessness were surveyed on Jan. 24.

The annual point-in-time count tallies people experiencing both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness as well as the total shelter capacity of the surrounding community. It counts those living in emergency shelters and transitional housing as well as those living in places not meant for human habitation, including cars, as long as homeless services providers can find them. The 2024 count found 384 people without housing, up 12.5% from last year.

While the point-in-time count provides the best data on homelessness available, it is notoriously inaccurate. Homeless camps can be difficult to find and are temporary by nature. They can spring into existence one week and be gone the next, but only those in existence on the day of the count are included. Furthermore, many people experiencing homelessness are able to sleep on a friend’s couch or in a spare room, making themselves almost invisible during the annual count. These factors make the point-in-time count a significant underestimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in Athens. 

Even so, we can compare this year’s count to previous years to glean important insights. For example, it’s clear that the point-in-time count has been growing year after year. The 2024 count is the highest of the past decade, second only to 2023.

Lillian Sronkoski

The data shows more sheltered homeless people, who are relatively easy to count, than unsheltered, who are more difficult to reach. 2023 was an unusual year in that the numbers for sheltered homelessness dipped below that of the unsheltered population. According to John Morris, the chair of Athens’ Continuum of Care, that’s because the Salvation Army shelter temporarily closed during 2023.

During the count, surveyors ask a number of questions designed to provide more information about those experiencing homelessness in Athens. This year, as in previous years, the people surveyed were disproportionately Black, mostly male and ranged widely in age. About 80% had been homeless for a year or more.

During public forums and local discussions about homelessness, it’s often assumed that most people experiencing homelessness come from outside Athens, but that’s not borne out by the data. A majority of the homeless individuals surveyed this year say they’ve lived in Athens for six years or more. Only 10% say they’ve lived here for less than six months. 

When asked where they lived before becoming homeless, 82 respondents said Athens-Clarke County. Forty-two said they came from a nearby county in northeast Georgia, and 39 said they came from another region in Georgia or from out of state. Only 35 out of 232 respondents said they came to Athens for the services, compared to 177 who lived here already or had family or friends here. Those numbers are consistent with previous surveys. [Chris Dowd]

Homeless Coalition Appoints Director

The board of the Athens Homeless Coalition has appointed UGA graduate Michael Bien as its first full-time executive director.

The coalition—a collection of shelters and other nonprofits that assist the homeless—reorganized last year, transitioning from a loose collective to a more formal organization. Based on a 2023 strategic plan commissioned by Athens-Clarke County, county commissioners directed $1.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the AHC. Bien’s responsibilities will include helping to decide how to spend those funds and set measurable goals for the AHC. 

“Even more than his professional experience, his compassion, humility, curiosity and dedication shine through when you meet him,” local pastor Laura Patterson, vice chair of the AHC board, said in a news release. “He knows the importance of partnerships to address the big issues that intersect in Athens and in the lives of so many homeless Athenians. We’re excited as a board to support the work he leads in this community.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in public health from UGA, Bien went to work for Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, where he started the street outreach program. He then worked for the CDC Foundation, specializing in systemic factors and social determinants that affect health and homelessness.

“We are committed to better understanding the scale and scope of homelessness in Athens, advocating for unhoused individuals and families, and supporting our amazing service providers,” Bien said. [Blake Aued]