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What’s Included in Athens’ Plan to Address Rising Homelessness?

At an October public forum, Athens residents provided feedback on a strategic plan to address homelessness. Credit: Mason Pearson/file

Homelessness in Athens isn’t new, but it is a growing problem. Athens has witnessed a 21% increase in homelessness since last year. Unsheltered homelessness, specifically, has more than doubled since 2018. Rates of both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness in Athens are also rising faster than any other part of Georgia. 

According to the Athens Area Homeless Shelter (AAHS), “the basic reason for homelessness in the U.S. is a scarcity of affordable housing.” Factors such as low income, lack of employment, mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, poor credit and a criminal history all contribute to an individual’s risk of becoming homeless. 

To address this issue, a new plan was recently approved by the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission. The commission unanimously voted in favor of the Strategic Plan to Reduce and Prevent Homelessness on Oct. 3 in hopes of combatting the city’s rising homelessness rates. The ACC government and outside consultants developed this plan, along with the Affordable Housing Investment Strategy, to create and preserve affordable housing while expanding public outreach efforts. 

The Athens Homeless Coalition (AHC) has been designated as the Homelessness Advisory Committee for handling project funds and will oversee several of its outlined strategies. The AHC, consisting of multiple nonprofit service providers, is a part of the Continuum of Care (CoC), an integrated system of care that involves coordination among agencies and tracking clients through the system.

What’s in the Plan

The strategic plan highlights 10 strategies to allocate the $4.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that the mayor and commission dedicated toward housing insecurity back in March 2022. This grant is a part of the $57.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds awarded to Clarke County in 2021. ACC has until December 2026 to spend all funds. 

  1. Strengthen the CoC by staffing the coalition: $400,000
  2. Increase participation from persons with lived experience engagement: $30,000
  3. Improve coordinated entry policy and implementation: $500,000
  4. Establish comprehensive street outreach: $300,000
  5. Organize housing surges for encampments: $150,000
  6. Increase low-barrier shelter units: $1,900,000
  7. Implement diversion and rapid exit: $250,000
  8. Create a support fund to end and prevent homelessness: previously allocated $300,000 as a part of ACC’s fiscal 2024 budget process
  9. Engage in landlord-focused initiatives: $240,000
  10. Establish partnerships for employment: $195,000

$500,000 is reserved for additional strategies.

Justifications behind these strategies rely on data analysis from various institutions in Athens, including nonprofit organizations, businesses, service providers, health care providers and other members of the community. ACCGov has worked with The Cloudburst Group to collect and interpret data, most of which comes from Homeless Management Information Services (HMIS), point-in-time (PIT) counts and the Housing Inventory Count (HIC). HMIS is a database funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing the demographics of homeless people served and the outcomes of such services. The PIT count is an annual census of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, and the HIC provides information on the status of shelters available. Between December 2022 and July 2023, ACC also conducted numerous interviews, surveys and listening sessions with stakeholders and residents as the plan was being developed. 

After several discussions, a commission-defined option (CDO) was added by commissioners Ovita Thorton, Dexter Fisher, Melissa Link and Carol Myers, mostly for the purpose of holding the AHC accountable for their work. The CDO requests that the AHC explore opportunities with faith-based organizations and expand stakeholder relations in reducing homelessness. AHC must also seek regional coordination and submit a progress report to the commission every 180 days. Moreover, the M&C has approved an additional $195,000 of ARPA funds toward physical health care for homeless individuals, as a part of the fourth strategy. 

Athens as a Service Hub

According to ACC Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) officials, Athens is a regional hub for neighboring counties due to its rapidly expanding industries and service accessibility. In fact, Athens’ CoC qualifies for direct federal funding toward homeless initiatives, such as the Annual Renewal Demand of $780,486. People visit Athens specifically because it is the largest city in the region and thus the central location for services, HCD Community Impact Administrator Alejandra Calva said at a Sept. 13 public input forum.

“We are considered a service hub for medical services, for education, for cultural events. So it’s not a surprise that homeless services are more robust here in Athens than anywhere else in the region,” Calva said.

When this was revealed, many attendees at the forum expressed disdain. To some, the notion of Athens being a hub, attracting more people year after year, implies limited resources for existing residents. Critics of the plan have said that they should not be responsible for accommodating individuals that migrate from other areas. Not to mention, many are growing fearful for their safety as the homeless population climbs. Out of the 915 unique comments that ACC has received through online forms and public input sessions, the second-most common theme relates to how “funding more services and acting as a hub encourages more homeless to come to ACC.” 

While it may seem that a large number of homeless people are seeking refuge in Clarke County, the 2023 PIT count suggests that only 13% of unsheltered individuals have lived in Athens for less than six months. Meanwhile, over half of those experiencing unsheltered homelessness are native Athenians. The influx can also be explained by the lack of housing in neighboring counties. Out of Barrow, Jackson, Madison, Oconee and Oglethorpe counties, Barrow County is the only one that offers transitional housing beds—25 to be exact. Clarke County, on the other hand, offers 139 year-round shelter beds and 22 transitional housing beds. The issue, then, extends to a lack of resources in outlying counties. 

John Morris, the chairman of AHC, emphasized the need for regional collaboration at a Sept. 19 stakeholder meeting. He said that Athens, and specifically the coalition, can be a foundational entity for nearby counties in search of guidance. With the approved ARPA allocations, AHC plans to host regional conferences, help outside communities compete for state funding and establish shared goals across the board.

“If we want our surrounding counties to be able to provide their own services, it takes relationships and conversations,” Morris said. “We want to be a trusted source of information, and we want to identify that shared vision.”

Despite data suggesting that only a minority of the homeless population are from out of town, commissioners still added a clause discouraging other jurisdictions from dropping off homeless individuals in Athens. Another aspect of the CDO warns that ACC will enforce Senate Bill 62, which prohibits nearby medical facilities and local governments from dispatching unauthorized drop-offs. However, it’s unclear how SB 62 will be enforced.

Public Opinion Divided

Out of more than 900 comments sent in about the strategic plan, 38% were against it, 40% were in favor of it and 22% expressed neutrality. At the Sept. 13 input forum, reactions were divided as well. Some residents believe that the funds are being misspent, that bureaucrats are “paying people to deal with homelessness” instead of addressing root causes. ACCgov responded to this critique in a document noting that “service providers need experienced and qualified staff to implement their programs designed to prevent and/or reduce homelessness.” Organizations applying for these funds must also go through a competitive proposal process that requires the approval of several entities, including HCD and the county commission. All of this is to ensure that funds will be used appropriately.

Another concern pertains to mental illness and substance abuse. Some residents feel that allowing individuals with these issues to stay in shelters, without any expectations, will only enable them. HCD officials point to the housing-first model, the foundation behind the strategic plan. Housing first is an approach “guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical.” Studies suggest that the housing-first model, compared to the treatment first model, is more likely to produce long-term housing stability. Programs adhering to this principle have also been shown to reduce costs of homelessness by shortening stays in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and prisons. 

In addition, $4 million of ARPA funds, alongside other grants, have already been dedicated toward behavioral health. ACC is also partnering with nonprofit Advantage Behavioral Health Systems to build an inpatient mental health facility off Mitchell Bridge Road. As for recovery support, strategy four of the plan aims to build proper relationships between outreach workers and homeless individuals to best determine their needs. The plan promises assistance in case management, check-ins, treatment services and referral when necessary. 

Proponents of the plan believe that it represents the most feasible course of action with the resources available. The top comments in ACC’s feedback portal showed enthusiasm for strategy 10, in particular: Supporting partnerships for employment and opportunities for workforce development and/or education. Programs like AAHS’s Bridge to Home exemplify this strategy in action. It encourages homeless individuals to pursue higher education by pooling community resources to ease the process. Both residents and service providers, therefore, view reintegration as a priority in addressing homelessness. 

The vast majority of speakers were in favor of the plan at the recent voting session. Many of them were social workers or people who used to be homeless. The strategic plan is truly a starting place, as Commissioner Jesse Houle put it, and much more effort is still needed to move it forward.