- Occupy Athens organization is shaming a proposed law from City Hall to be “anti-homeless”
- Issues of urban camping downtown began with the Occupy Athens protest in 2011
- Commissioner says the proposed law is misinterpreted and an $8 million homeless shelter will be constructed on Prince Avenue in the coming years
- The downtown Athens homeless feel that the city overall treats them fairly
ATHENS, GA — A recently proposed law for downtown Athens is now accused of being “anti-homeless” by a local activist group.
Rewind to October 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street protest caught on across the country and quickly built an Athens following. The most popular trend from this protest was camping out on the streets, so soon Athens saw dozens of tents popping up around the iconic Arch. While it may have seemed like just an eyesore, there were genuine concerns from the public about the spontaneous sidewalk campsite. So, City Hall decided to propose an act that would curtail the behavior in the future.
After the hype around Occupy Wall Street fizzled out, the Occupy Athens movement morphed into an organization interested in workers’ rights and poverty in the college town. The organization’s official website was furious once the news of the proposed law for urban camping broke, bitterly coining it “The Anti-Homeless Law” and shaming it to be “oppressive.”
However, the Classic City did not intend to reprimand the homeless at all. District 9 Commissioner Kelly Girtz explains that the real proposed law is called “The Hours Of Operation Act” that corresponds with the hours businesses are open to control protests. There are certain kinks to iron out, but “there is no informal or formal legislation to move the homeless out of downtown, none whatsoever.” Girtz expresses concern that there are upwards of 500 homeless individuals on the streets at any moment.
Two of those people are Dorothy and David Gardener, who have lived on the downtown sidewalks for over four and a half years. The married couple agrees that their relationship with law enforcement is very peaceful and there has never been an issue with their presence. “As long as you don’t cause any trouble to them, they won’t cause any trouble to you,” David assures. They have been able to rest on benches and sidewalks without ever being asked to leave, but Dorothy says they prefer to ride the bus out of downtown to sleep near Epps Bridge every night where it is quieter.
The homeless in Athens do not need to make a commute away from the heart of the city for a good night’s sleep. There are several shelters in Athens that offer clean beds, showers, laundry, and hot meals, such as Sparrow’s Nest and Bigger Visions. UGA student Hannah Dahl has spent much of her college career volunteering at Sparrow’s Nest on a weekly basis and affirms that the shelters can be the home some are looking for: “There’s actually a sense of community among the homeless, and a lot of them know each other, they’re friends, and they know the programs to go to.” However, many homeless individuals go in and out of shelters because they fill up quickly, while others have a hard time making it back before curfew.
That may be less of a problem in the future, especially for the homeless who reside downtown. Commissioner Girtz reveals that Athens is drawing up blueprints for a new homeless shelter on Prince Avenue, and the city is already pumping $8 million into the project. He expects the new shelter to house dozens of residents with the construction deadline set for 2016. Girtz believes the new shelter will prevent more homeless from sleeping on the sidewalks, even though it was never banned to begin with.
Occupy Athens did not respond when asked for a comment.