Athens Resource Center for the Homeless: The Untold Story

By: Aaron Conley

Throughout the day, many people walk to and from cars in front of Advantage Behavioral Health Services on North Avenue, where anyone in need can receive behavioral health, development disability, and addictive disease services for free.

In recent years, the acre in front of Advantage has sat empty.

Now, the lot is full of construction equipment, and the beginnings of what will become the Athens Resource Center for the Homeless, known as ARCH. When the project is completed, ARCH will house or expand several key services for the homeless, even though they may not know it yet.

When the center opens Athens Area Homeless Shelter, AIDS Athens, the Athens Nurses Clinic, as well as Advantage will be able to provide for the individuals they serve in way that has never before been possible.

Through interviews with leaders behind the center’s creation, it becomes clear that ARCH is the product of conquered challenges. The project has overcome bias and stigma, government red tape, and financial difficulties on the way to where it is today. Those past experiences instill ARCH’s leaders, they say, with the confidence to face their newest challenge head-on.

The story of ARCH began with the announced closing of the Navy Supply Corps School on Prince Avenue.

The base was destined for a move to Rhode Island, despite Athens’ campaign to save the base, when Congress approved the fifth round of Base Realignment and Closures in 2004.

Once the closure was announced, the next decisions centered on what would become of the 58 acres of land, which had been continual use since the 1860s.

The land and buildings left behind by closed military bases are required to be used to help the homeless, as a result of the Land Redevelopment Act of 2004.

The Northeast Georgia Homeless and Poverty Coalition urged groups in the Athens area to form a collaborative proposal for how to use the land, according to Shea Post, the executive director for the Athens Area Homeless Shelter.

“[The coalition] wanted the organizations that were interested in using the base to come together and create a proposal,” Post said. “In order to become involved, however, organizations had to show that their role in the project would significantly expand their services.”

Initially, three organizations threw their hats into the ring on the project: AIDS Athens, the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, and Advantage Behavioral Health Services.

They were joined quickly by other organizations, such as the Athens Nurses Clinic, Children First, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and Court-Appointed Special Advocates. Together those organizations developed the proposal for a center that would become ARCH.

They were not the only ones, however, that had hopes to use the base.

The University of Georgia wanted to purchase the land as well, so that it could build a Health Sciences Campus, and that conflict presented ARCH with its first challenge.

Ultimately the federal government emulated the judgment of Solomon, and decided that the base should be split in half between the two proposals, a verdict their neither side found satisfying.

They did manage to come to an agreement. The University of Georgia agreed to pay $7.9 million dollars to the Homeless and Poverty Coalition to use the entire base.

Even with the money provided to the nonprofits, finding a new location for the resource center proved itself to be ARCH’s greatest challenge yet.

“We had a very difficult time finding a location to build the center,” said Evan Mills, the director of business development for Advantage. “There is a lot of stigma around homelessness in Athens, and a lot of people had a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude toward building a center to help the homeless.”

Mills also described the difficulties that came from the Athens-Clarke County government in regards to zoning.

“We would find locations where we thought that we could build the center,” Mills said. “We kept running into lots of red tape.”

Ultimately, the coalition decided to lease the North Avenue. location from Athens-Clarke County, and was able to acquire the proper zoning from the local government. ARCH’s first challenge had not only been overcome, but the final location was the best possible place to help the homeless.

“The current location can only be described as ideal,” said Mills. “It is extremely convenient to many other organizations that ARCH’s clients will be able to take advantage of.”

ARCH is being built directly next to the main building for Advantage, and the Athens-Clarke County department of labor. It is also very close to DFACS, the Boys and Girls Club, and 4th Street Elementary School.

Another major challenge for ARCH arose as the various organizations determined exactly what services the center would offer. The project required that every organization expand their services, but the trust fund put together by the government only covered the cost of building ARCH. Not all of the organizations involved in the proposal could afford that, forcing CASA and Interfaith Hospitality Network to drop out of the project, leaving ARCH without a childcare provider.

The coalition was able to overcome this challenge as well by bringing Lifespan Montessori School on to the project, and the final vision for ARCH as a one-stop-shop began to take shape.

Lifespan Montessori School will work to provide a childcare with the requirement that 51% of its clients must be homeless. The cost will then be covered by the other 49%.

Athens Nurses Clinic and AIDS Athens will provide the homeless community with the medical and dental care that it needs.

“We are excited about the one-stop-shop concept,” said Melanie Burden, volunteer and patient services coordinator for Athens Nurses Clinic, in an interview with the Red and Black. “We are hoping that this will make it easier for our clients to get everything that they need.

Athens Area Homeless Shelter will provide financial literacy and job preparation classes. Also, the shelter will coordinate 24 transitional apartments to help homeless families find permanent homes.

Advantage Behavioral Health Services will also utilize five of those apartments for homeless families that struggle with developmental disabilities and drug addiction. Advantage is also going to use ARCH to provide the homeless day center, where those in need can shower, do laundry, and even receive mail.

“Increased emergency shelter is a short-term way to aid the homeless,” Post said. “With ARCH we hope to present a long-term aid that will hopefully work to transition people out of poverty and homelessness permanently.”

As construction on ARCH reaches its planned conclusion in the summer of 2015, the project is faced with one final challenge.

The coalition has begun a new endeavor: to spread the word about ARCH within the local homeless community, which have been mostly in the dark to this point.

“The community that we are trying to reach does not frequently read the local news, and we have not sought out much PR,” Mills said. “We want to get the word out to them in the right way. We did not want to make promises about the center so long before its completion.”

According to Mills, the organizations behind ARCH are preparing to begin a PR campaign within the homeless community with a goal of building excitement about the project. He also emphasized that people who are already aware of the project are very excited.

“We want to open the center in the most client-centered way possible,” Post said. “The intent isn’t to keep information from people.”

To this point, ARCH has overcome every challenge that has been placed in its way, and the individuals behind the project are certain that this new obstacle will be no different.

“We are creating an Athens where those in need do not have to choose between the services that they need,” said Mills. “Everyone will be able to get the help that they need without being limited by a lack of transportation.”

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