Investigation of Athens homelessness

Most people pay little mind to the sound of jingling change. It comes up often enough, such as when we do laundry or buy a snack from the vending machine.

But for people like Rose, that sound can mean avoiding another night when she has to go to sleep hungry.

She spends her waking hours sitting cross-legged outside her various haunts in downtown Athens. One day, it’s on East Clayton Street, outside the entrance to Doc Chey’s and Mellow Mushroom. The next day, she might be at the street corner where College Avenue and Broad Street intersect, near Five Guys.

Today, she sits on the bench outside the Morton Theatre. She holds up a piece of cardboard that was ripped from the side of a box of Parent’s Choice diapers. Written on it is the phrase “Need money, God bless.” A humble pile of dusty coins lies in a tattered Atlanta Braves cap.

Rose is among the 450 or so homeless people in Athens-Clarke County. The homeless population count in 2009, as tallied by the ACC Human & Economic Development Department’s Annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count, came in at 454. Individuals made up 324 of the population. The 42 homeless families with children added another 130 people.

What may be more disturbing is fact that these numbers over the last four years have remained steady. In 2008, there were 462 homeless people (308 individuals, 154 in families with children). The HED found 464 homeless people (304 individuals, 160 in families with children) in 2007. The homeless in 2006 numbered 475 (319 individuals, 156 in families with children).

Nationwide estimates of the homeless population can differ wildly because there is no official definition of what it means to be homeless. The most recent official count from the federal government found 671,888 people living in shelters or on the street.

In 2004, the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization of cities with populations greater than 30,000, conducted a survey of mayors of major cities. The most frequently cited cause of homelessness was lack of affordable housing.

Data compiled by Partners for a Prosperous Athens demonstrates that affordable housing is indeed out of reach for many of the county’s citizens. For housing to be considered affordable, mortgage or rent cannot exceed 30 percent of gross household income. With the median value of a home in Athens being $111,300, an annual income of $33,900 is required to afford housing. However, median household income for the county is only $28,403. This leaves approximately 21,000 households unable to afford housing of this value.

The USCM found the next leading cause of homelessness to be mental illness. Of the people recorded in the 2009 HED count, 178 homeless people were “severely mentally ill.”

Substance abuse was the next most frequently cited cause. A little over 200 homeless people in Athens-Clarke County in 2009 suffered from chronic substance abuse.

Low-paying jobs were found to be a significant factor as well. In this regard, the county’s problem is three-fold. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average weekly wage is $572, well below the Georgia average of $676.

Additionally, the median hourly wage is $11.75 but the mean is $14.63. This suggests that the distribution of pay is skewed toward the lower end of wages.

Finally, the labor force relies too much on “service-producing” occupations, such as healthcare and social services, retail trade and accommodations and food services. About 54 percent of the county’s jobs fall into these sectors. This kind of work typically does not pay the kind of wages an average citizen needs to live comfortably.

Rose was left without housing after she fled from an abusive spouse. She is among the nearly 80 homeless people who were victims of domestic violence.

The problem is further compounded by the lack of adequate resources to alleviate the plight. The county has only four homeless shelters with a mere 77 beds.

Citizens interested in helping can volunteer with organizations such as the UGA student run Athens PBJs. Robert Thrasher, director and co-founder, has stressed “a need for students to reach out” and the “need for bridging the two communities into one.”

The Salvation Army on Hawthorne Avenue also welcomes help. “The more the community provides,” says Athens Salvation Army Corps Officer Robert Parker, “the more we can provide.”

Add-ons

1. Breakout contact information for Athens PBJs and Salvation Army.

2. Line graph to chart the trends in homelessness.

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