White woman in in straw hat wearing a bandage across her nose sits on a floral chair in front of white background.
Michelle McDonough, a 1st Step resident, is saving money for her own place during her time at the homeless camp in Athens. She hopes more homeless camps are created across the state. (Madgie Robinson/Fresh Take Georgia)

Athens — Michelle McDonough recently decorated her tent in a camp for homeless people with a rug, drapes and bedcovers she bought from a local Salvation Army store. She coordinated each item with the brown, blue and red color scheme she chose for her temporary home.

McDonough, 61, moved from San Diego to Athens, hoping to stay with a friend. But that friend passed away before she arrived. Without a place to stay, she slept in her van. She also attempted to sleep at the local homeless shelter. Yet, all the beds were full.

Since moving into the camp, McDonough has received donated clothes and meals and a chance to save money for a new place. The two unarmed security guards who monitor the camp around the clock make her feel safe.

Michelle McDonough decorated her tent at the 1st Step camp for homeless people with bedcovers, a rug and drapes she bought from a local Salvation Army store.
(Faith Hadley/Fresh Take Georgia)

The camp is similar to what Republican state lawmakers envisioned in legislation at Georgia’s Statehouse, although they appeared to be putting the idea on hold temporarily. Senate Bill 62 contains several initiatives related to homeless people. One of them would authorize government-sanctioned camps for homeless people statewide. The bill recently cleared a key legislative committee on a 4-3 vote but its sponsor, state Sen. Carden Summers, said in a Rules Committee hearing this week that he would remove the provision on homeless camps before it came up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Summers, who represents the Cordele area, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the change. He is sponsoring the bill for the second consecutive year, along with fellow Republican senators from rural parts of the state.

“There’s a lot of vacant property in every city — doesn’t matter where you go,” Summers said, “and we’re trying to picture a scenario where people can go have a safe place to sleep at night, possibly get a shower, use the bathroom, facilities, etc.”

Under the legislation, “sanctioned camping areas” could be located on state property and receive state funding.

During a committee hearing on similar legislation last year, state Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Grayson Democrat, said such camps sound inhumane. She added that Atlanta and Georgia’s largest counties should have more input.

At a legislative hearing this year, Cindy Battles, policy director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, said: “If the bill’s job is to remove homeless people so you don’t see them as often so that you’re not then uncomfortable by the sight of homeless people, maybe this bill does what it’s supposed to.”

Homelessness, a multifaceted problem complicated by mental illness and addiction, has risen nationwide amid the coronavirus pandemic and housing shortages.

During the last week of January in 2022, 10,689 people were homeless in Georgia, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report. Nationwide last year, 582,462 people experienced homelessness.

There are roughly 40 similar government-sanctioned camps nationwide. Many have been transformed into tiny home villages, such as Nickelsville and Quixote Village in Washington State.

The Cicero Institute, an Austin-based conservative think tank, is promoting the Georgia legislation and similar measures in other states. 

In Arizona, for example, lawmakers have introduced legislation backed by Cicero that would ban people from sleeping in public spaces. Tennessee enacted a statewide camping ban in July 2022 and lawmakers there are now proposing a pair of bills that would authorize homeless camps.

Georgia’s legislation would block municipalities from prohibiting the enforcement of laws against “unauthorized public camping, sleeping, or obstruction of sidewalks.”

But federal court rulings, according to critics, bar local governments from forcing people to move when there is no room for them in local homeless shelters.

Meanwhile, opponents of such legislation argue permanent housing is the best solution, though it is scarce in some areas.

Project Community Connections, which helps homeless people, accepted applications in January for Thrive Sweet Auburn, a supportive apartment complex in downtown Atlanta. It received 1,504 applications for 117 units within two weeks, said Margaret Schuelke, who helps lead the nonprofit.

“The need is huge,” Schuelke said. “People want to be housed. People want to be productive.”

It’s more efficient to build temporary government-sanctioned homeless camps, rather than wait years for permanent housing, said Judge Glock, Cicero’s senior director of policy and research.

“That’s clearly not humane to say we’re not going to do anything for decades until we can give anybody a permanent house,” Glock said.

Critics also expressed concerns about strict rules some homeless camps enforce for when residents may come and go. Others lack public transportation or discourage residents from leaving to seek jobs, said Steve Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Called 1st Step, the homeless camp in Athens features 55 family-sized tents, an outdoor kitchen, portable toilets and running water. Toward the back sit two living rooms with a TV, computer and pool table.

Rashawn Henry and other residents help keep it all clean, taking out the trash, sweeping and mopping. Henry has lived there for a month since being released from state prison on drug-related charges. Charles Hardy, 1st Step’s director, took him in and gave him a job, even though the camp was at capacity.

Rashawn Henry has lived at 1st Step for a month. Charles Hardy, 1st Step’s director, took him in and gave him a job, even though the camp was at capacity.
(Madgie Robinson/Fresh Take Georgia)
Grey camping tents are set up outside on gravel ground in front of a road and blue sky.
1st Step features 55 family-sized tents. The camp is managed by Athens Alliance Coalition, which helps move residents into permanent housing.
(Faith Hadley/Fresh Take Georgia)

“He took the first step. I took the first step. Look where I’m at now,” Henry said about the progress he’s made.

Managed by Athens Alliance Coalition, 1st Step helps residents find permanent homes. Since it opened last year, the organization has moved 80 people into transitional housing, 25 into permanent housing and 13 into rehab treatment programs. There are 200 people on a waitlist to move into the camp, Hardy said.

Advantage Behavioral Health Systems representatives come twice a week to provide mental health therapy and help residents get driver’s licenses and Social Security cards. The camp, meanwhile, has helped find residents jobs in a poultry plant across the street.

“If you got a model already in place, 1st Step, that’s already transitioning people from homelessness into a house, apartment, job, rehab— why would you not want that?” Hardy said.

Since it opened, the camp has offered a safe, clean and positive environment for homeless people, said Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz.

In August of 2021, the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved the camp on a 6-5 vote with Girtz casting the tiebreaker. In December of that year, the commission awarded $2.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to Athens Alliance Coalition to operate it.

“It’s been stabilization for a lot of people who were living in a much more uncertain environment before they were there,” Girtz said.

McDonough hopes camps like 1st Step are set up across the state so more people like her can get help.

“There’s hope,” she said. “I just feel blessed to have this place.”

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