Georgia county builds a government-sanctioned encampment for homeless

Behind an old abandoned school and across the street from a chicken plant, Athens-Clarke County government officials are creating space for an encampment for people experiencing homelessness.

County commissioners voted to create the campsite after the railroad CSX said that the people who are homeless will no longer be able to live at an existing camp on their property after Nov. 12.

"We’re just trying to live like everybody else," said Flo, a resident of the current encampment who did not wish to give her last name. "We are human too."

The county-run encampment will be behind the former North Athens School. Crews have cleared brush and have installed outdoor electrical outlets and water spickets at the site.

"Given the timeframe and knowing that certain areas of town are going to face eviction from where they’re currently located," said Gavin Hassemer, assistant director of central services for Athens-Clarke County. "[Our goal] is to get a place up and running as fast as possible."

County commissioners will spend $250,000 to secure the abandoned buildings and get the plot of land ready for residents, the Athens Banner-Herald first reported. That’s on top of an additional $50,000 the county plans on spending to create a strategic plan to help people who are homeless, according to the report.

Among some who are homeless in Athens: skepticism.

"I don’t think it’s going to work," Flo said.

She said part of why her encampment has been around so long is that it is a functioning community, with rules.

"Everybody who lives here backs the people up," she said. "You can’t move here unless we agree."

Flo said she and other people who are homeless in the county do not believe a government-sanctioned camp would facilitate a similar situation. 

She added that many in her community generally avoid shelters because they are often full and they have time limits, along with other restrictions that prove burdensome, especially those who suffer from addiction and other mental health issues. 

Hassemer admitted it’s not a perfect – nor permanent – solution, but the commissioners decided it was the best course of action given the circumstances.

"This is not the end goal and right now we can provide this and work on longer-term solutions in the future," he said. 

According to the county’s plan, the campsite will be able to accommodate as many as 50 people.

"I don’t really think that Athens I don’t has a clue how many people are really in the woods out here," Flo said. 

When asked how many she believes are in Athens’ woods, she said well over two or three hundred.

Come November, she said she thinks when they get evicted from their current site, people will just find somewhere else the woods to go and start a new camp of their own.

"They’re going to be in the woods where they are," she said. "That’s more than likely where I’m going to be."

That is, unless they get kicked out again.

"[The county camp] will be safe place that they don’t have to relocate daily, give them basic services like water, and electricity and a secure place for their belongings," Hassemer said.