The homeless in downtown Athens: A smear on Athens’ image

The scene is all-too-familiar for Mike Gillispie. As the teller at the BB&T Bank on Broad Street walks down Clayton Street on a Wednesday afternoon, a man begs him for money.


“You want to help these people out, but the reality is they will probably spend your money on something like drugs or alcohol that will only make their situation worse,” Gillispie said. “I prefer to donate to charity instead.”


On any given day one can spot about five to ten homeless persons walking about downtown, often asking those who cross their path for some money. After an hour of walking downtown one afternoon, this reporter was panhandled four times.


Tracking the number of homeless in an area is particularly difficult, according to Alison Spiers, director of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter. “Our best guess at this point is that there are about 250 homeless people in the county,” Spiers said.


The Athens Area Homeless Shelter is one of a handful of local organizations that are trying to help local homeless persons.


“We offer employment and education-related supportive services for homeless individuals,” Spiers said. “An important aspect of this is our child care services for homeless families, since many of these are single-parent families. We can shelter up to six families with children at any given time, for a total capacity of about 24.”


According to Spiers, in 2008 the shelter sheltered 75 individuals, 53 of whom were children ranging in age from three months to 17 years. Furthermore, 66 percent of the adults that entered the shelter were able to find work and maintain employment for at least one month during their stay at AAHS.


Rev. Bob Edwards has another method of helping the homeless through his program “Feed Downtown,” a part of the Reformed University Fellowship on Broad Street.


“A group of our students feed and talk with the hungry and forgotten folks downtown,” Edwards said. “Every Friday at five o’clock we hang out in front of The Grill and serve God by serving others.”


The Athens-Clarke government is also trying to deal with the problem.


“We like to take a two-tiered approach,” said Doug Lowry, District One Commissioner of the Athens-Clarke County government. “On the one hand, we want to and need to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. On the other hand, you want to educate and help those that can make their way out of homelessness and poverty.”


Although instances of the homeless accosting or harming people downtown are rare, the presence of the homeless downtown does make certain local residents uneasy.


“It is just a little scary and a little uncomfortable,” Gillispie said.


The homeless only become a legal problem when they cross the line into panhandling and accosting, which is illegal under ACC ordinance, panhandling is not illegal. It only becomes illegal when the panhandling involves accosting. Accosting is defined as “approaching or speaking to someone in such a manner as would cause a reasonable person to fear imminent bodily harm or the commission of a criminal act upon his or her person, or upon property in his or her immediate possession.” 


Arrests of the homeless downtown are rare. “For the most part, these people are harmless,” said Hilda Sorrow, public information assistant for the ACC police. “We get a lot more drug arrests of the homeless than we do arrests for accosting.”


While the safety of citizens is an issue, the bigger threat may be to Athens’ image to visitors and its effect on locals and students who might frequent downtown.


“It’s certainly a problem for the downtown area,” said Kathryn Lookofsky, director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority. “You don’t want people to have to live like that and as a city you certainly don’t want visitors to be deterred by the threat and nuisance of being panhandled or accosted.”


Local merchants are concerned, but the struggling economy seems to be their biggest concern.


“In a recession, anything that could drive away business is certainly disconcerting,” said Jennifer Lang, owner of the downtown institution and bar The Globe. “But on the whole, we don’t really have too many problems with the homeless downtown. They usually are not too much of a nuisance to visitors downtown and those coming to The Globe.”


Local businesspeople don’t see the recession as affecting Athens’ homeless problem disproportionately.


“We haven’t been hurt by the recession any more than the rest of the country in terms of the homeless population,” said Lyne Scott, executive assistant of the Athens Chamber Commerce. “It obviously hasn’t helped, and the number of homeless here has grown slightly, but it’s nothing too crippling or disproportionate to anywhere else.”


While the homeless problem in Athens is not going to be solved anytime soon, some things appear clear. First, it is a problem. Second, that problem is more of a social problem—not a crime-based or violent one. Third, drug abuse lies at the root of the problem. Finally, although the recession has probably added to the number of homeless in Athens, it is not affecting it in any disproportionate way.


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