Athens-Clarke County to spend $5 million on homeless camping and eviction prevention program despite concerns raised by ACC staff about two nonprofit contractors’ ability to do work.
The ACC Commission voted unanimously last week to award $2.5 million to First Athenian Development Corp. to run the eviction prevention program, and voted 8 to 1 to award an additional $2.5 million to the Athens Alliance Coalition to operate the Barber Street homeless camp for 22 months, with Commissioner Mike Hamby dissenting and Allison Wright absent.
In a memo to commissioners, Director Blaine Williams called the Athens Alliance Coalition a “high-risk recipient of federal funds” that is “at high risk of non-compliance.” AAFC has never received federal funding, has never been audited, and has no grants or financial management in place, Williams said. He also raised other red flags: the organization currently has no paid staff and 100% of the salaries of the executive director and deputy director will be billed to the county government, leaving them no time for other tasks. .
The commissioners decided to build the homeless camp last summer after learning that CSX Railroad planned to clean up a long-running campground near the greenway. Other camps are periodically cleaned by ACC Recreation Services and private owners. Athens shelters do not have the capacity to accommodate everyone in need of shelter, and some homeless people prefer not to follow the rules imposed by the shelters. A government approved campsite will offer more stability and better conditions, with meals, toilets, showers and security provided.
“It’s a key piece of a very complicated puzzle,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said. “I’m very encouraged to see this body start to come together around a plan. I’m especially proud to live in a community that’s starting to come out and become leaders in this state to try to tackle complex issues. and on a very, very large scale.
Organizations that address homelessness are overstretched, creating a backlog, Steven Mason, executive director of the Bigger Vision shelter, told the commissioners. “Until we can build emergency beds and build capacity in this area, we need to meet our need for emergency shelter, and the camp will expand that,” he said.
“When you start something new, everyone gets scared,” said Charles Campbell, a member of the Athens Alliance Coalition. While other communities have established such camps, the idea is so new in Athens, as AAC founder Charles Hardy pointed out, that no one has experience with it. Hardy said he spent $32,000 out of his own pocket to help the homeless.
“Why don’t you just provide them with an apartment?” asked one woman, who didn’t give her name properly and went over the time limit. With an occupancy of 50 people, the funding amounts to $2,600 per person per month over 22 months, she said. “Nowhere does it say you can stick people inhumanely next to a chicken factory.” Commissioner Carol Myers, however, said the cost of the tents themselves are in line with a typical campsite, and most of the funds go towards things like security and cooking equipment.
As the ACC distributed an influx of pandemic-related federal funds, some commissioners, like Hamby and Ovita Thornton, said the funds were going to the same organizations. These groups usually have a strong track record of service delivery. But, “How do you get experience if you don’t give people an opportunity?” said Thornton.
Like AAC, Athenian First Development Corp. was the only candidate for the deportation program. In October, Haylee Banerjee, director of ACC Housing and Community Development, recommended re-opening the contract to attract more applicants, but commissioners instead decided to renegotiate the company’s original $3.8 million proposal. ‘AFDC. Banerjee noted that the AFDC has no experience with evictions, has never received federal funds, has never been audited, bills to provide already overlapping services, and was unstaffed for just a few weeks. before the start date of the contract on January 1st.
The eviction program and homeless camp will be funded by the ACC’s $60 million share of the US bailout, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the Congress and signed by President Biden in March. Some eviction funds could also come from nearly $1 billion the federal government gave to Georgia’s Community Affairs Ministry, most of which remains unspent. Federal funding adds more chains and an extra layer of oversight compared to using local taxpayer dollars.
Banerjee also questioned the scope of the program. Many expected a deluge of evictions after the Supreme Court struck down a federal moratorium on evictions in August. That didn’t happen, however. New eviction notices have averaged about 100 per month, a “slight uptick” but well below the average of 250 per month before the pandemic began, according to HCD. Around 325 evictions at various stages are currently pending in the Magistrates Court.
“I see these two plans as one package,” Commissioner Russell Edwards said. “I’m just grateful that we’re doing something. We are taking action, but we retain the flexibility to make changes.
The commission dealt with a lengthy 46-point agenda during the five-hour meeting on December 7. Others include:
• Approved a request for a state grant of $139,000 to help fund the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force. Houle and Commissioner Mariah Parker opposed the grant. An op-ed written by Parker and published by the Athens Politics Nerd website saying the task force is perpetuating a racist war on drugs prompted a lengthy response from police chief Cleveland Spruill defending the task force as protecting minority communities from gang and drug related. violence. See flagpole.com for more.
• Approve a roundabout at the intersection of West Broad Street and Hancock Avenue.
• Approve a 16-unit townhouse development on Pulaski Street, with Commissioner Melissa Link voting against.
• Approval of $5 million in SPLOST-funded improvements to Bishop Park. The top priority is a new pool, as the park’s existing 45-year-old pool leaks 10,000 gallons of water a day. This will require the pool to be closed during the summer of 2023. Upgrading the play area is also a possibility if funds are available.
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