ATHENS, Ga. — You don't have to go far in metro Atlanta to find makeshift shelters or tents tucked under bridges and roadways.
Across the U.S., cities are dealing with the crisis of homelessness, and Athens-Clarke County is now taking a different approach by opening a government-sanctioned encampment.
"When you constantly see people riding around and see people under corners and living under bridges, when do you finally say, 'It's time to help them?'" Charles Hardy, head of Athens Alliance Coalition, said.
Hardy's team is tasked with running the county's first sanctioned encampment, a project that will house around 50 tents in an open lot off of Barber Street in Athens.
The '1st Step Alternative Housing Community' opens Wednesday, its name is symbolic of the project's intention.
"I wanted to give it a name and give it life," Hardy explained. "We asked the homeless people and they said, 'Why not call it 1st Step?'"
The encampment is not intended to be an end point, but a transitional space with those voluntarily living here marking a first step toward permanent housing.
The decision to greenlight the project, according to Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, came down to a need worsened by the pandemic. Girtz said the status quo of roadside encampments wasn't working.
"There are more people who are unsheltered right now than we've had in prior years," Girtz said. "As we look at the scene in Athens, we're seeing a lot of people play something like hopscotch and jump around the community. So what we want to do in Athens is provide comprehensive support for the unhoused community — a stop gap. A means along the road of getting that done is having a sanctioned encampment, so we can at least have a place where people are able to move to and they can engage consistently with behavioral health services, and that allows us around 20 months to move toward permanent solutions."
Support for those who opt to live at the site will include access to bathrooms and showers, lockers for storing personal belongings, meals and more. The site will have 24/7 security, Hardy said, and computers have been donated to offer Internet access for job searches.
Most importantly, the site will offer a direct link to supportive services.
"When they come in, we want to be sure they have all the required documentation they would need if they would apply for housing," Charetta Milton, project director, explained. "If they don't have those, we have resources to get those."
It's such access to resources that makes Milton and others behind the project believe in '1st Step's' potential for success. Up to $2.5 million has been allocated for the project, a mix of local and American Rescue Plan funding, with a timeline of 12 to 22 months.
Yet those behind the project acknowledge there are critics to such an approach. The National Coalition for the Homeless issued an online statement last September in response to other encampment projects, arguing against the idea of sanctioned vs. unsanctioned encampments. The statement reads in part "sanctioned encampments are an inexpensive alternative to building housing or shelters that serve the needs of those individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness."
But Girtz and project leaders emphasize the '1st Step' community is just one part of a larger plan to address homelessness in the community. Girtz said around $5 million in additional funding will be spent on more permanent housing solutions.
"I'm here to tell everybody, this is not an end point," Girtz said. "This is really a transitional point where we get people more support that they need."