Reorganizing Athens Homeless Coalition Asks the Public to Participate

Tents at the First Step homeless camp off Barber Street. Credit: Isabella Morgan/file

Athenians have very passionate opinions as to how our community supports our growing number of unhoused neighbors. Whether coming from a “we are not doing enough” perspective or a more fiscally cautious “if we provide more services, more people will come” approach, the emotional investment of Athenians has increased drastically over the past few years in response to the devastating local and regional realities of the national housing crisis. Solutions are far more complex than simply needing more funding for programming or trying to prevent the influx of people from neighboring counties. 

I have engaged in dialogue with people from various positionalities, backgrounds and experiences, and found value in each perspective. With the help of my personal and professional relationships, I am increasingly convinced that we all want the same thing—an Athens where no one is forced to sleep outside or take drastic measures to meet their basic needs. The polarized manner in which we discuss these topics prevents us from seeing the many ways in which we overlap, and from learning lessons from the lived accounts of those who have endured life unhoused. 

Every day has been an adventure since I started with the Street Outreach Team at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems in August 2021. It is an extraordinarily interesting time to be a homeless outreach worker. Our team spends our weekly work hours visiting 20-plus encampments, walking the streets of downtown, stopping by other provider sites, and driving our clients to appointments, to gather documentation or to move into housing. Our team has also operated an emergency shelter hotel voucher program in which approximately 20 households live in hotel rooms while taking the final steps to transition into long-term housing. 

We meet and get to know hundreds of people—those who have unique stories, experiences, emotional wounds and perspectives. With core values of honesty, empathy, autonomy and advocacy, our role is simple: to build relationships with people and support them to accomplish their goals. Helping people to help themselves take the next steps is not as simple. Sometimes our combined best efforts are unfruitful due to a myriad of systemic barriers. 

Outside of my work with ABHS, I serve as the chair of the Athens Homeless Coalition (AHC), a loose network of stakeholders invested in convening the community together to identify and pursue collaborative solutions to reduce and prevent homelessness. The AHC is a registered 501(c)3 with no employees, and is entirely operated by its volunteer board of 17 mostly direct service providers. Historically, it has partnered with the Athens-Clarke County Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) to fulfill a handful of HUD-required activities, such as the annual point-in-time count and weekly continuum-of-care meetings, as well as hosted quarterly general body meetings open to the public for brief presentations, training opportunities and announcements. 

The work of the AHC has always been inherently limited by its unstaffed structure and overrepresentation of service provider perspectives. Our board believes it is worth investing in the AHC to convene the community for dialogue, gather data to inform decision-making and create more opportunities for community collaboration. This work should be community-led, and our board has committed to transitioning board leadership to a representative group of non-service provider community members with a couple of ex officio non-voting service provider seats. Included in the proposed restructured board are reserved seats for persons with lived experiences of homelessness. We recognize that these individuals are the experts of their own experiences, and are individually situated to identify, brainstorm, revise and give feedback to community issues and innovative solutions. The AHC needs their partnership at all levels of the organization. 

Human connection and personal belongingness lead to the best outcomes. The AHC can foster connection and belongingness among people with lived and living experiences of homelessness, community members, faith-based communities, business owners, service providers and policymakers. In a community that believes no one should be forced to sleep outside, every individual person has a role to fill. As one currently unhoused individual wisely shared in a community input session in September, we are never going to make any progress if we don’t work together. 

The Athens Homeless Coalition is positioned to host conversations and converge and analyze community data for the public. Additionally, the AHC could be the entity to catalyze a regional approach by fortifying relationships with neighboring communities and empowering their leaders to better care for their own. Most importantly, being at the table together with the experts who have survived and are surviving life unhoused is a must if we expect to ever have different outcomes. 

Our status quo is far too costly to sustain in terms of human suffering, as well as currently unaggregated amounts of taxpayer dollars spent on the externalities of homelessness, like preventable health care expenses, criminal justice costs for petty crimes resulting from the pursuit of meeting basic needs, encampment shutdowns and cleanups, etc. The absence of robust community-led dialogue, power-sharing opportunities for people with lived experience, and data-driven community narratives have created the polarized echo chambers that prevent us from moving towards real solutions. If you are willing to both share your perspective and consider the perspectives of others, you are invited and needed. Let’s see what we can do together.