ATHENS, Ga. — When it comes to those struggling to find permanent housing, Athens has taken a unique approach to solve the issue - a government-sanctioned encampment.
11Alive was there when the city opened up First Step in March, and we came back to visit later in the year to investigate whether this is a real solution to a real problem.
Athens is like many other cities in Georgia, where many don't have housing. But Athens differs when it comes to solutions.
“This ain’t never been done, nowhere,” said Charles Hardy, who runs the city’s first-ever government-sanctioned homeless encampment through First Step.
The encampment is a fenced-in, security-enforced area with bathrooms, food, recreational activities and dozens of tents. The tents are meant to give people without homes a safe place to temporarily live, the key word being “temporarily.”
“We are first step, alternative housing community, which means that we’re not housing anyone to keep them homeless,” said Tershant Smith, the project director.
Records from First Step show that the encampment can serve 55 people at one time, and projects it will help 660 people after a year.
During their first five months, Frist Step said that 160 people used the camp and that 13%, or roughly 20 people, went into permanent housing. Another 6%, or roughly 10 people, went into a treatment program.
“Hope and dignity are everything. And we and our job is to help restore the hope and dignity in people who may have lost it,” said Smith.
The 75 others left the encampment but didn't go into permanent housing or treatment. The city said it doesn't keep a record of where those people go, but at the end of the year, it would track if anyone who had left the encampment returned.
BELOW | Data from First Step
When people are ready to leave the encampment, Smith said they aren’t pushed out before they’re ready. They do it on their terms when they’re prepared.
“It hasn’t gotten to a point where we had to tell a person there’s nothing we can really do, you know, for you, so we’ll have to discharge you out of the camp,” Smith said.
But while this idea is unique to Georgia, it’s not in other states. Places like Colorado, Nevada, and California are just some states where sanctioned encampments exist. And they’re not without criticism.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is strongly against the model, saying, “A tent is not a permanent solution to homelessness.” It accuses governments of using it as a solution instead of focusing on what it says is the real problem, a lack of affordable housing. But Hardy says a home won’t fix everyone’s issues.
“If you take a person 10 years in the woods and put them in an apartment, they ain't got no job, they don't understand how to work a microwave, they don’t know how to pay their rent, they don’t know how to get on a computer,” he said.
Smith said she believes given time; the encampment will become a model other communities will follow.
“I think it’s an actual movement. And I think it’s gonna catch the wave across the globe,” she said.
Nearly $2.5 million dollars has been allocated for the project. Some of that money came from the American Rescue Plan. Hardy's contract is set to go into 2023.