Athens Considers Next Steps After Closure of First Step Encampment

First Step, a government-sanctioned homeless encampment that opened in early 2022, will close on Dec. 31 of this year. Athens-Clarke County government is closing the encampment while it looks to find a more permanent solution to homelessness.

As a result of the closure, unhoused individuals cannot stay at the encampment and will need to find other ways to find shelter, something the county assists alongside the residents that remain.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Athens-Clarke County government has formulated multiple plans using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in order to find more permanent solutions to homelessness. However, one side effect is the closure of the First Step homeless encampment, something that was deemed a temporary solution while these plans were constructed. 

First Step, run by Athens Alliance Coalition, a non-profit that focuses on reducing homelessness, was created in August 2021 via a contract in collaboration with the county government. The encampment was funded thanks to $2.5 million from the ARPA. The contract expires in December 2023; it was not renewed in order to find more permanent solutions.

While homelessness is not a new problem in Athens, crises such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the reports of homelessness due to rising housing costs in addition to layoffs and evictions.

The Point-In-Time is a survey conducted to snapshot reports of sheltered and unsheltered individuals on a given night. In addition, the surveys provide a sense of the overall scope of homelessness in an area. Sources: 2014 Healthcare and Housing Systems Integration Initiative Athens, Georgia, Athens-Clarke County HIC PIT Reports 2017-2023, 2021 Athens-Clarke County CoC Racial Disparities Assessment. (Graphic/Chris Darnell)

According to the PIT surveys, the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased since 2020, but this data point may be a bit misleading. People who stayed at First Step are counted as unsheltered individuals. Regardless, Athens-Clarke County government acknowledges homelessness is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Various Programs Available

With the closure of the encampment, the county government approved several plans relating to housing and homelessness, including the Affordable Housing Investment Strategy (AHIS), the Strategic Plan to Reduce and Prevent Homelessness (SPRPH), and the transition plan for sanctioned homeless encampment. These plans were created to increase access to affordable housing and reduce homelessness by using $5 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

The AHIS focuses on homeownership and rental housing, while the SPRPH, developed concurrently with this plan, addresses homelessness. There is a close relationship between these two plans.

Relating to the transition plan, there are a number of programs available for those that need them, including access to shelters, hotel vouchers and mental healthcare. The Housing & Community Development Department is one of the county departments that works with those experiencing homelessness.

Alejandra Calva, the community impact administrator, manages communication with the encampment and the county government. Calva said Advantage Behavioral Health, a center that focuses on providing mental health services, partnered with the encampment in order to serve the needs of the residents of the encampment.

Dealing with cases of mental health is needed. According to a 2014 study from the Georgia Department of Housing and Urban Development, 44% of unhoused individuals are reported to have a severe mental illness.

“It’s just a matter of case management, seeing what works for each individual person. What works for one resident is not necessarily going to work for another,” said Calva. “So we have a few months, right now, for that process to take place so that by the end of the year, everybody has been transitioned in a safe and a humane way; we’re not just throwing them out the door.”

This practice also assists those who did not stay at the encampment, as every individual has their own needs, which is something that is stressed to the staff at the encampment.

To find out what funds are being used by ARPA, Calva suggested to visit the ARPA section of the Athens-Clarke County government website here.

Shelters Outside of First Step

Outside of the encampment, shelters such as Athens Area Homeless Shelter and Bigger Vision of Athens are available for those that need it, especially as the winter season approaches.

The outside of Bigger Vision of Athens on Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/Chris Darnell)
The inside of Bigger Vision of Athens on Oct. 18, 2023. The shelter offers laundry services, storage for personal belongings, food and drinks, and many others. (Photo/Chris Darnell)

Both shelters offer programs such as child services and education resources. For a full list of services at Athens Area Homeless Shelter, click here. For a full list of services at Bigger Vision of Athens, click here.

To contact Athens Area Homeless Shelter, call 706-354-0423, or visit at 620 Barber St. To contact Bigger Vision of Athens, call 706-340-6062 or visit at 95 North Ave.

Chris Darnell is a fifth-year student majoring in journalism and minoring in sport management.

 

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