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Commissioners Talk Homelessness, Possible City-Owned Camp

A homeless camp off North Avenue. Credit: Randy Schafer/file

Athens-Clarke County commissioners are considering starting a city-run camp for the homeless where they’re not in danger of private property owners clearing them out.

CSX Railroad has requested that Athens-Clarke County police clear out homeless encampments along the tracks it owns—a request that police can’t legally refuse, according to ACC Manager Blaine Williams. As a stop-gap measure, commissioners Mariah Parker, Melissa Link and Jesse Houle want to find county-owned property where displaced homeless individuals can stay. “I think the idea could give us some breathing room,” Parker said.

The topic came up during a five-hour retreat held June 3 at Bishop Park’s covered tennis courts. It’s also been on their minds as they’ve discussed the eviction prevention program Project RESET with the CDC’s eviction moratorium set to end June 30, which supporters say will prevent homelessness by helping tenants repay back rent. 

Houle, who did not attend the retreat, told Flagpole that the nonprofit group Athens Alliance Coalition negotiated with CSX to push back the evictions until August in exchange for help cleaning up the sites. But that is not enough time to find or build proper housing for the people living in camps along the railroad.

“It’s not going to solve everything,” Houle said of establishing a formal camping area. “It’s a piece of the puzzle.” Long-term, the commission needs to create a strategic plan for permanent housing and address the affordable housing issue in Athens, Houle said.

Commissioners also discussed broader challenges regarding the homeless in Athens. Currently five nonprofits—the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, Bigger Vision, Family Promise, Project Safe and Salvation Army—provide emergency shelter or transitional housing, often in combination with support like counseling for financial, mental health and substance abuse problems. Many more provide other services like outreach, meals and hygiene supplies.

One challenge for such groups, said Hayley Banerjee, director of the ACC Housing and Community Development Department, is that they have to cobble together funding from various state, local, federal and private sources. Another is that rents are “up significantly” the past few years, with a one-bedroom apartment now averaging around $722 a month, Banerjee said. This creates a logjam where people can’t afford permanent housing, so they stay in temporary housing longer, which keeps others out of the temporary housing.

The idea of a “structured encampment” also has challenges, Williams told commissioners. Other cities have set up such camps, but “for whatever reason, it hasn’t gone well,” and many have been disbanded, Williams said. 

If the commission moves forward, the county would have to find a site for the camp, as well as a service provider to run it. “When I talk to providers, I don’t know any that could [set one up] in a short time,” Commissioner Tim Denson said.

The former Kelly Diversified building off Willow Street, which is owned by the county and currently serves as storage, has been discussed, but Williams said it lacks a working HVAC or working bathrooms. Liability is also an issue, said Attorney Judd Drake.

Denson also asked whether ACC could provide tax abatements as an incentive for landlords who take in unhoused tenants. “I’m not aware of any program like that,” Drake replied.

Whatever commissioners decide, Williams urged them to work within a strategic plan already developed by nonprofits that compose the Athens-Clarke County Homeless Coalition. “Homelessness is not going away, despite our best efforts,” he said. But “if we can make people’s lives better, that’s what we should do.”