Downtown churches turn other cheek on illegal parking

By Polina Marinova

A bent metal sign with brown graffiti spray-painted on its bold white letters stands like an aged parking attendant in front of a church lot reading, “Private Parking: First United Methodist Church Only.”

Though the Hancock Street sign alerts trespassers that the minimum towing fee of their vehicle is $125, it may just be an empty threat.

“There are signs around the two parking lots for the church that say parking is reserved for First United Methodist Church members,” said Tom Jackson, a United Methodist Church leader and University of Georgia vice president. “But those signs are largely ignored.”

Like the vandalized sign, the church’s property isn’t shown much respect either — especially on weekend nights.

“We see broken beer bottles and evidence that people have urinated near the building,” Jackson said. “It’s really unsavory for a church, and our custodians end up arriving early in the day on Sundays to clean before the congregation begins.”

Like other churches downtown, the First United Methodist Church attempted to solve a problem that community members and church employees often face downtown — limited parking and trashed lots.

Years ago, the Methodist Church patrolled its parking lots, but eventually gave up.
“For a number of years, we had an associate pastor who was very diligent about walking around the parking lots and he would put notes on cars who were not regulars of the church,” Jackson said. “We had the repeat violators towed, but that was 10 years ago. We’ve stopped doing that. The lots are full almost every night by people who are not part of the church.”

A temporarily solution for the churches might be found in the just-opened Washington Street deck.
“I think the deck has answered a lot of our issues,” Jackson said. “It’s given us a lot of parking. The fact that there’s no charge on Sundays really helps us out.”

Laura Miller, director of the Athens Downtown Parking System, is not aware of any complaints from local churches, but she also thinks the new Washington Street deck could help alleviate parking problems.
“If someone would like to park for a longer period of time, that’s a matter of choice and the new deck would allow them to do that,” she said.
But the deck has not answered the trash issues.

The First Baptist Church located on Pulaski Street, must also clean up after the typical downtown Athens rush.
“People leave their trash behind, but it’s not a big problem,” said Susie Moon, the First Baptist Church secretary. “The way the church is situated, a lot of people walk through when they’re going downtown. And some people throw beer bottles in the bushes.”

Trash may not pose a “big problem” for the church, but due to its location, the First Baptist Church often finds unauthorized vehicles of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members on its property.

“Parking has been a problem before for us because of where we’re located downtown,” Moon said. “For instance, the SAE house is right around the corner and students park in our lots. They park kind of crazy so we’ve had to get the parking services on them a few times, but they’ve straightened up.”

The First Christian Church of Athens off Dougherty Street also confronts the same repeat violator — typically a University of Georgia student.
“Most of our parking is off-street and we have probably 10 spaces on-street right in front of the church and during the week, those are never available,” said Alan Mace, the interim minister of the First Christian Church of Athens. “To be honest, they are mostly occupied by students during the week.”

Still, Mace did not complain too much about trash left behind on the church property citing the church’s location as a possible reason.
“There are negatives in every world,” he said. “We find that we do get some trash, but we don’t have any problem with beer cans and liquor bottles. I think part of it is that we sit on the corner of downtown, and we’re not too close to the nightlife scene.”

Whatever the trash, someone needs to clean it up.

The First Presbyterian Church contracts with a cleaning service, whereas the others employ custodians to clean the lots before the church holds its morning service.

The churches apply this quick fix to solve the trash problem, but the limited parking downtown is something they do not regulate anymore.

Four central churches downtown do not issue permits to their patrons nor do they closely monitor the lots.
“Unlike some of the other churches near us, we have yet to post a sign out there telling folks that they could be towed away,” said Robert Burbage, the First Presbyterian Church business administrator. “We have certainly discussed it but at this point, we’d just prefer not to do that.”

So what are the consequences of parking in church parking lots illegally and leaving trash behind at any time of the day? There aren’t any.

Even though many of the church lots display menacing signs warning violators of hefty fines and towing fees, chances are that nothing will happen. The church leaders said they almost never tow violators. In fact, the only time the First Christian Church of Athens has enforced its written policy and towed a violator was on a Friday before a football game.

“The parking lot does say that unauthorized parkers can be towed, but we would do some serious checking before we decide to tow someone,” Mace said.

The problems of trash and limited parking are not going away and the violators are not being held accountable, yet the church leaders are not planning on presenting the issues at town hall meetings nor are they planning on moving from their central location downtown.

“We see trash from restaurants, we see newspapers and the occasional beer can,” Burbage said. “It’s just part and parcel of being a church in the center of the city. We’d prefer not to have to deal with it, but it’s part of being in such a central location.”

As a result of the central location of many of these churches, many church leaders are adopting a laissez-faire mentality to the accumulating trash and limited parking problems.

“It’s a big nuisance,” Jackson said. “We used to issue permits, but we’ve given up. It’s just too hard to patrol. Now, people trash our lots and you come in on Sunday morning and find beer cans and urine on the front steps of the church.”

Michael McGough: He does it all

By Abbey Joris

In a small office with three desks pushed together in the center of the room nestled in the basement of the Athens Land Trust, it is clear that Michael McGough’s plate is full; he does it all.

“He is kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” said Bob Sleppy, the executive director of Nuci’s Space where McGough worked as an intern after graduate school.

McGough is the first full-time executive director of the Stable Foundation, a local non- profit organization that works to provide housing for families facing homelessness. He tries to find a balance between responsibilities at work and his life outside the job, a feat he says many in the industry struggle with.

“I have to be disciplined to get away from the office, not look at emails on the weekends,” McGough said. “Burnout is high among people in the social services field, so it’s something I have to watch out for both for myself, and our staff.”

Dr. Thomas Holland, a professor who taught McGough in graduate school, said that burnout is common because workers tend to prioritize work first.

“People really care about the clients that they serve and they tend to work extraordinarily long hours above and beyond the call of duty because their hearts are in it,” said Holland. He didn’t have an exact figure but said he thought it was probably around one-third of those in the industry.

McGough said one of the best things about his job is his wide range of responsibilities, despite the threat of burnout. He said working at the Stable Foundation allows him to put all of his skills to the test, not just a few.

“In previous jobs I was in position to focus on one thing or one task,” said McGough. “Now I have a much broader responsibility. This is the first position that matches what my graduate studies prepared me for.”

McGough said the ability to use all his skills for one job is a personal milestone for him. He said he enjoys the possibility that he can be with clients one minute, and the next he’s with a contributor or the mayor.

Paul Lazzari, who is one of McGough’s bosses, said that McGough’s responsibilities include “day-to-day operations.” Lazzari is the co-founder of the organization and the board chair who hired McGough.

Lazzari said that the board is on the visionary side of the job and thinks about the long-term aspects of the organization, while McGough is “doing bookkeeping, client coordination, really all the decision-making that happens on a day-to-day basis.”

McGough is in charge of the staff and reports to the board monthly, along with daily operations, said Lazzari.

McGough’s ability to be more than one position for the foundation is one of the reasons he got the job.

“He had the right credentials,” said Lazzari. “We needed somebody strong in the administrative and operational side.”

Lazzari said that the organization decided on a full-time executive director because it made the foundation look more professional. He also said it provided them with the ability to better serve the clients in the community. The organization ran entirely on volunteer support before McGough was hired.

McGough ensured stability and professionalism for the organization by getting IRS 501 (c)3 tax exemption status, which the organization received “just last week,” he said.

Lazzari said this was McGough’s biggest accomplishment thus far, and McGough agrees that achieving this was a big step for the organization.

“For the past three years we’ve been operating under the Community Connection of Northeast Georgia,” said McGough, “which means they take responsibility for us.”

McGough said that the 501(c)3 status will provide the organization with more funding possibilities, as well as the ability to file their own IRS Form 990. The organization’s current 990 information is filed under the Community Connection of Northeast Georgia. This form did not clearly separate the operations of the Stable Foundation and McGough looks forward to what filing independently means for the organization.

“It really enables us to grow and serve more families and more people,” said McGough. “Before people wouldn’t sponsor us. Now we can apply for funds from more places.”

While McGough’s multitasking skills provide him with the ability to do the job, he said that he did have a few things to learn when he first started.

“It’s been kind of crazy because this is the first time I’ve worked directly with the homeless population,” said McGough. “And I’ve had a ton I’ve had to learn just about what is being done, what are the best things being done and are there changes that need to be done.”

One thing that McGough is learning is that not all the people who receive help do the right things with it, said Keri Bunting, case manager for the organization. She said he sometimes struggles to understand the basis for a client’s “bad” decision, which she said could be “not paying rent but having a new PlayStation.”

“I usually deal with those situations, and that’s my job,” said Bunting. “He still gets upset about it. He gets really frustrated.”

Despite that struggle, Bunting said that McGough “is never willing to give up,” even on the people whose priorities seem mixed up.

Those stressful situations don’t turn into a stressful work environment said Bunting. She said McGough helps her turn them into production with his encouraging and helpful attitude.

“He challenges me to think outside of the box,” she said. “He never says do this, or do that; I am the case manager. He leaves it up to me.”

His background as a church music minister and previous non-profit jobs provided him with enough experience to make an impression as a first time executive director.

“He isn’t a greenhorn at all,” said Holland. “He’s quite knowledgeable. Mike has an extra advantage since he worked in the field before he came to school.”

McGough’s work and abilities make his bosses happy and Lazzari says that McGough “has really risen to that task and done a great job.”

McGough said that there is always work to be done, despite reaching personal milestones and program accomplishments.

McGough’s goals for the Stable Foundation include growth both in the community and in building size, with hopes of finding their own property to use as rental housing for their clients.

“I constantly feel like I should be doing more,” said McGough.

Anti-panhandling meters effectivenes unknown

By Abbey Joris

     The parking meters read: “A donation here will provide help for the homeless. Please do not give cash to pan handlers.” There are four—one in front of Heery’s Clothes Closet, one in front of Starbucks Coffee, one in front of Yoguri and one in front of Five Guys Burgers and Fries—and the question is, do they work?
     In 2003 the Athens Downtown Development Authority installed the meters to curb panhandling in the area. Many other cities around the country use this same technique. These cities include Nashville, Denver, Atlanta and Las Vegas, along with several others.
Denver is a city that has seen widespread success with this program as part of its Denver’s Road Home initiative to end homelessness in 10 years. The city has put 80 meters in place and raises $100,000 a year through both meter donation and meter sponsorship, according to
     Kathryn Lookofsky, director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, said that the meters are in place “to discourage people from giving cash or change to panhandlers on the street.”
     The money collected from the meters goes to the Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition. “The Homeless Coalition is a group of area service providers of people who serve the homeless population in the Northeast Georgia area,” said Michael McGough, executive director of the Stable Foundation and secretary for the Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition.
     The money obtained from the parking meters buys bus passes for the homeless.
     “Bus passes are a very common need because most folks who are experiencing homelessness also have a severe need for transportation,” said McGough.
     McGough said that bus passes instead of cash prevent the abuse of funds.
     “They give those to the folks who are homeless and need transportation downtown so that we’ll know what that money is used for,” said McGough.
     The Homeless Coalition received its last payment from the meters in December, McGough said. It was $300.
     Despite Denver’s success, many of the other meter donation systems across the country have seen mixed opinions that range from successes to unknowns, and Athens is the same.
     After almost eight years, the meters are still there and so is the panhandling.
     “I think they help some but as long as people give them money, panhandlers will be there,” said Lookofsky.
Lookofsky said though she thinks that they help there is no way to measure it quantitatively.
     “Folks don’t really think that there’s been much of a reduction in panhandling,” said McGough. “If local businesses were looking for it to reduce panhandling, that hasn’t really happened.”
     Sergeant Derek Scott with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department said that while he thinks the panhandling has declined, he doesn’t give all of the credit to the meters.
     “I think we’re getting more support as far as educating the public as far as the aggressive panhandling,” said Scott. “Just having officer presence down there has deterred it as well. I don’t think I could directly account the meters in declining the panhandling.”
     A long-time employee of Heery’s Clothes Closet, who wished to remain anonymous, said she has been working there since she was a teenager. She said that she hoped they helped and thinks they do, despite the fact that panhandling still occurs.
Other employees of downtown businesses either don’t believe they have helped or just don’t know.
     “I think that so few people use them and people just still give money, that I don’t know that they’ve done much at all,” said Dwight Tomlinson, an employee at Ben and Jerry’s who said he has been working downtown for seven years. “I’ve never seen people use them.”
     As an employee at Starbucks for the past five years, Jason Corrigan said he has not paid attention to whether or not the meters have done anything. He also said that he is unsure of where the money goes but has seen buses transport the homeless from place to place.
Michael Leon Davenport, a local artist who’s been in downtown since he was 15, draws pictures of UGA and the arch and displays a sign that explains he accepts donations for art supplies.
     Downtown Athens is home to several of these local artists and musicians, who play and draw for money, but Davenport isn’t a panhandler and said he doesn’t give panhandlers money; he tries to motivate them.
     “They know for a fact that I do this for a hobby,” said Davenport. “I let them know I’m not stupid and I won’t support their habit.”
Davenport also said that he tries to work with the business owners to keep the panhandlers at bay.
     Opinions throughout the downtown area differ regarding the effectiveness of the meters, and overall, it is clear that determining the actual impact is more of a guessing game than a numbers game. Some guesses are optimistic and others are not. One thing that isn’t a guess is that no one knows for sure.