Tyler Baker: Georgia General Assembly Legislative Aide

Tyler Baker, a junior double-majoring in Housing and Family Financial Planning at the University of Georgia, does more than cheer for UGA’s football team and enjoy the downtown scene of Athens with his friends. By being a legislative aide for the Georgia General Assembly, this young man has helped local and state representatives change state laws.

The Georgia General Assembly is the modern embodiment of a representative government in Georgia and is one of the largest legislatures in the nation. Of course, the General Assembly consists of two houses: The House of Representatives and the Senate.

So, what exactly is a legislative aide and what does he/she do for the Georgia General Assembly? According to the Georgia General Assembly website, the Assembly offers a program called G.L.I.P. which stands for Georgia Legislative Internship Program.

During this internship, approximately 35 interns receive firsthand experience of the legislative process. They are assigned to offices in the Georgia House of Representatives or the Georgia Senate and each intern will serve a unique purpose in the process and have a multitude of different tasks to perform each day. This includes legislative tracking, constituent services, media assistance, attendance at committee meetings, writing bill summaries and more. During their time at the State Capitol, interns will gain knowledge of the how state government works, how the legislative process works.

However, Baker did not apply for the internship through G.L.I.P. He says that the main outlet he went through was UGA’s very own College of Family and Consumer Sciences’ (FACS) Congressional Aide Program.

“So, I actually found out about the legislative aide program my freshman year,” Baker said. “It’s run through the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Every year, they send about four legislative aides from the college to represent FACS at the State Capitol.”

Baker says that students who apply for the internship through G.L.I.P. are assigned to a committee in the House of Representatives or the Senate, but says that he was assigned to a local representative through the FACS program.

“I kind of got lucky through my program and I was really thankful that FACS offered that opportunity,” Baker said.

Legislative aides who applied through the FACS program get to live in Metro Atlanta and complete the internship throughout spring semester during the Georgia General Assembly session. Five students serve as aides to Athens-Clarke County representatives while one student serves as an aide to the Women’s Legislative Caucus. Most aides only work for one representative, but Baker was kind of unique.

“I worked for two representatives,” Baker said. The first was Chuck Williams. He represents Oconee County and part of Athens, so UGA is in his district. And then I also worked for Representative Jan Tankersley. She represents Statesboro, Georgia and Georgia Southern [University] is in her district.”

Baker explains that he was assigned to two representatives because their offices were next to each other, so he would just aid both.

“Since they both represented major universities in the state, they had a lot of similarities [like] rural districts and that sort of thing,” Baker said.

If you want to know more about Baker’s experience as a legislative aide, you can watch this video for more info: 

Lawmakers in the General Assembly typically meet for a 40-day annual session and the final day is called “Sine Die,” which means adjourning without setting a date to return in Latin. Baker says that this day was one of the most exciting moments for him in the duration of the session because Representative Chuck Williams had been working on a piece of legislation called House Bill 517 that dealt with UGA, the Athens area and alcohol sales, which he feels he has a specific relation.

“It was a piece of legislation talking about the distance requirements for alcohol sales in relation to college campuses in Georgia,” Baker said. “He got it pushed through the House and then it went over to the Senate side…we were unsure it was going to make it and then finally on ‘Day 40’ it made it through, Senate passed it [and] House agreed.”

Baker says that he personally made a difference by committing to his part in being a legislative aide. He helped ease the lives of his two representatives which provided them more time to attend legislative committee meetings where they could be a better part of the legislature.

“I would say that my biggest contribution would have been really just making the lives of the two representatives I worked for easier,” Baker said. “I really took a huge load off their backs by dealing with their constituents, dealing with their e-mail accounts, all of their messages…there were so many issues and so many concerns that really needed a personal touch and I was able to provide that.”

By doing these tasks, the representatives he worked for got to attend committee meetings, which allowed them to be more of a “full-time legislator, not a part-time legislator and a part-time office administrator,” which Baker feels is very important.

Baker says that his greatest appreciation and learning experiences that stemmed from this internship was learning how to talk to the government, especially since his future career goals deal with business and real estate development where he says he would be dealing with the government.

“I had always been interested in politics, especially on a state level because it’s more down to earth and I feel it’s like it’s a little bit more in touch with our lives,” Baker says. “I am a Housing major in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, so I am looking forward to a career in property management and real estate development and I learned through this internship the relationship between government and business and how they can work together to really make sure that each party’s happy…”

Homelessness in Athens Becoming a Continuous Problem

By: Yasmeen Freightman

Paul Nelson had been homeless for over seven years. In those seven years, he had been to the hospital and rehabilitation more times than he can count on both hands for addiction to drugs. Today, three years later, he only seeks to guide more of the homeless off the streets.

Homelessness has been a continuous problem in Athens and it is only growing. According to the 2009 Annual Point-In-Time Homeless Count done by Athens officials, 72% of homeless individuals in Athens claimed Athens as their origin of homelessness. Of those counted, 49% claimed no income source. Since 2009, these statistics have only increased.

Two of the chief homeless centers in Athens are the Athens Area Homeless Shelter and the Healing Place of Athens. The Athens Area Homeless Shelter is a transitional shelter for women and dependent children. The AAHS does depend on community donations for 1/3 of its total budget that goes to its transitional housing program, but most of their programs are almost exclusively funded in part by state and federal grants.

Katie Smith, the shelter director of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, says that AAHS offers several forms of assistance to the homeless. These include the Almost Home Transitional Housing Program, the JobTREC employment program and the rapid re-housing program.

“With our three programs we provide assistance utilizing all resources available to us and have allocated our funding streams to allow us to provide transitional shelter as well as re-housing and employability programs rather than only focusing on one method of homeless assistance,” Smith says.

Smith also says that without either community contributions or government grants, all of the programs would be negatively impacted.

“Through the DCA Emergency Solutions Grant, we have funded the Going Home program for 28 families this year and through the HUD Supportive Housing Programs grant we have provided JobTREC services for over 150 individuals in 2012,” Smith says. “It is extremely unlikely that community contributions could take the place of these grants, which make up over half of our annual budget.”

The JobTREC employment program is an employment assistance agency for homeless people in Athens, where the main goal as a program is to eliminate the barriers that homeless clients face when trying to find employment, whether it is financial, transportation, or skill-related. In 2012, JobTREC served 194 clients.

Greg Purser, the JobTREC case manager of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, says that JobTREC teaches clients about the atmosphere of professionalism and generally has anywhere from 20-40 active clients at one time.

“Some examples of things that we assist with are: obtaining IDs and birth certificates, constructing professional resumes, vouchers for interview clothing, bus passes for job searching, online application assistance, and also work uniform and clothing purchases,” Purser says.

Purser also says that most clients have found jobs in a range of work fields, but there are certain barriers that most homeless mothers undergo when looking for work that mothers who live in AAHS do not have to experience.

“The mothers at AAHS do have slightly different assistance than other clients in JobTREC, one of the most beneficial being daycare services, which are paid for by the shelter,” Purser says. “This generally seems to be one of the biggest barriers to homeless mothers finding employment because they can get stuck in a loop of not being able to find work without daycare and not being able to pay for daycare without employment. In the past few months we have had a variety of jobs that the mother’s have obtained including some restaurant work, sales, and a hospital CNA.”

For a look at the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hOpJ3qtOpM.

Even with these programs readily available to Athens’ homeless still on the streets, homelessness continues to increase. Katie Smith attributes the continuity of the problem to the some homeless’ mental health issues and resources that are not readily available to them. In fact, 56% of homeless people are diagnosed with mental health illnesses, 33% are currently or in the past have had a substance abuse problem and 18% are homeless as a result of domestic violence.

“Homeless individuals in Athens often choose not to participate in programs, have undiagnosed mental health conditions, or have reached the maximum time limits that many of the programs in Athens have based on their grant funding policies and procedures,” Smith says. “Additionally, there is just simply not enough bed space in the shelters available in Athens.”

Greg Purser believes that homelessness within Athens is an increasing problem because many cannot find jobs due to the economy along with other issues.

“Although one of the main ways to assist with sheltering more homeless people in Athens is to have more shelter beds available, which is currently being worked on with planned additions to both the Salvation Army shelter and AAHS, homelessness is still a much larger problem than just having a bed available,” Purser says. “As you are probably aware, finding employment can be a difficult task for anyone in the economy that we have been having and this difficulty is increased exponentially by not having a stable place to call home, not having reliable transportation to look for or go to work, not having a phone number to even receive call backs from possible employers, and many other issues facing the majority of unemployed homeless individuals.”

Smith says that building more facilities can compromise for the amount of bed space that the shelters in Athens do not have, which can pacify the issue of homeless on the streets.            “…there is just simply not enough bed space in the shelters available in Athens. The HPC is working to alleviate this issue of space, but building of new facilities takes time and resources that are limited in the community,” Smith says.

Purser believes that if homeless assistance programs continue to progress and develop, more of the homeless on Athens’ streets can and will be reached out to.

“…one thing I have learned while working with JobTREC has been that there are as many different causes of homelessness as there are homeless,” Purser says. “If we continue to focus on services that assist with the entire spectrum of homeless problems and continue to provide assistance with housing and employment, then we should be able to hope to see a real impact in the amount of people that face homelessness in our area and also a decrease in time spent without housing.”

Athens-Clarke Schools Behind as Oconee County Schools Thrive

John McCrea is an Oconee County High School senior on the school’s swim team and show choir. Jade Hines is a Clarke Central High School senior who is on her school’s dance team and volunteers often around Athens. The difference: One student’s high school has higher graduation rates than the other.

For years, Oconee County schools have exceeded Athens-Clarke County schools academically. Oconee County Schools are ranked fourth in the state for students graduating within four years and one summer. Their cohort high school graduation rate in 2011 was 91.5 percent while Athens-Clarke County’s cohort high school graduation rate was 66.1 percent.

Sheila Beckham, the principal of Oconee County High School, believes that a strong sense of community in Oconee County contributes heavily to student success.

“Parents are involved in the education of their children. Also, when someone in the community is struggling (financially or otherwise) community members wrap their arms around them and help. I firmly believe that the sense of community, parent involvement, and value on education are the major contributing factors to our high graduation rate,” Beckham says.

Beckham also commented on her future plans, academically, for OCHS and what she believes will keep the high school graduation rates high among Oconee County.

“We will continue to offer instructional opportunities that meet the students where they are and challenge them to grow. We see a need for teacher training in that students are changing and teachers need to learn how to keep them engaged. Teaching and learning should always be fun,” Beckham says.

Robbie Hooker, principal of Clarke Central High School, says there are many issues hindering Athens-Clarke County students from graduating, but that student motivation is not one of them.

“Life circumstances, systemic failures, lack of family support and a lack of student motivation are a few conditions that cause students in our community to not complete high school. It is not the lack of ability of our students; it mostly attributed to other factors,” Hooker says.

In Athens-Clarke County, 82 percent of students are “economically disadvantaged” (qualify for free or reduced price lunch), 49 percent of children live in single-parent homes and 19 percent of adults did not graduate from high school.

Paula Shilton, the Director of the Clarke County Mentor Program, mentions that a number of factors play major roles in why more high school students aren’t graduating in Athens-Clarke County.

“In households with fewer adults, who may be under a great deal of stress because of low income, and who have limited time while working multiple jobs, it is more difficult to provide the support for children’s educational progress – – trips to the library, attendance at cultural events, computer access, reading aloud, reviewing homework – – that is often seen in households with more income and stability,” Shilton says.

According to Athens Patch, Athens-Clarke County faces budget cuts of almost $9 million. These cuts include decreasing schools’ teaching staff, delaying the openings of two new elementary schools, and increasing furlough days from three to five. Additionally, both Clarke Central High School and Cedar Shoals High School have lost funding for after school buses, which could cause a lot of after school programs for students to be shut down and working parents to find an alternative place for their children to stay until they get off work.

Hooker says that the loss of after school buses was an unfortunate turn of events for both students and after school programs.

“Budget cuts are unfortunate circumstances that have an impact on giving our students a quality education. Unfortunately, our afterschool program was impacted due to recent budget restraints,” Hooker says. “Fortunately we have been able to modify our afterschool budget to reduced, but not eliminate the number of days that we offer afterschool programs. We invite the community to volunteer to help with the afterschool programs.”

One joint after school program that had to shut down as a result of these funding cuts was Strive for College, a UGA-based mentoring program where UGA students serve as mentors for junior and senior high school students at both Cedar Shoals High School and Clarke Central High School.

Melanie Wiggins, a junior at UGA and the former Director of Internal Relations of Strive for College, says that after both high schools lost funding for after school buses and many mentees could not stay after school, Strive for College’s mission was majorly impacted.

“It is already hard enough to recruit students to stay after school for Strive, but without buses, and with most of these students’ parents getting off work too late to pick them up, we had to completely change our game plan. I think that losing after school buses has had a significant impact on any after school activities that students want to participate in,” Wiggins says. “I know that I derived a lot of meaning and satisfaction in my high school career because of my extracurricular involvement, and it’s really sad that some students may have had to sacrifice that fulfillment because they did not have a way home.”

With test scores, 57.9 percent of high school students in Athens-Clarke County passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test in 2011. In Oconee County, almost 90 percent of students passed the GHSGT.

Hooker believes that mentoring, along with other strategies, could be a definite solution to increasing high school test scores and graduation rates.

“Mentoring is a strategy that we have implemented over the years to help build stronger relationships between faculty and students who are most in need of academic and emotional support,” Hooker states.  “…we offer remediation during the day, afterschool, and on some Saturdays. We also use several online programs that offer remediation for students. I believe that the big thing for students who have trouble passing is the lack of self confidence and test anxiety…Test preparation starts early and at home.”

Shilton states that graduation rates have already increased in Athens-Clarke County, attributing the increase to different District resources.

“Graduation rates have increased significantly over the past several years, due to Clarke County School District initiatives such as graduation coaches, neighborhood visits to find students who have dropped out and encourage them to return, and the opening of Classic City High School and the Athens Community Career Academy, which provide wider curriculum choices and more individualized instructional methods that can help engage students,” Shilton says.

Wiggins feels that students aren’t being inspired enough to go to college and that the community should take stronger initiative to help students succeed and graduate.

“I think that the most important thing that can be done is empowering the students. They need to understand that college is an option for them, and then they need to be provided the resources that allow them to get there. Teachers, principals, parents, and community partners should be rallying around and encouraging these kids to succeed,” Wiggins says.

Overpopulation Risks with More Housing Developments Downtown

Citizens line up at a microphone close to the Board of Directors panel to give their input on developmental issues, such as low-income housing and the Classic Center expansion, at the Athens Downtown Development Authority board meeting held last Tuesday, February 13. One citizen asks, “How will the Classic Center expansion and other developments affect the downtown area positively?”

Downtown areas in college towns nationwide are becoming ideal places to build housing developments and other venues for leisurely purposes. In the downtown Athens area, new housing and hotel developments are being built as close to downtown as possible to accommodate students and visitors, but could lead to major increases in traffic and overpopulation in an already crowded city.

According to the news site, Globest, cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are at their prime for investing and building student housing and other developments in their downtown areas. Athens is quickly becoming familiar with these kinds of investments as well. According to OnlineAthens, a news outlet, $140 million is being instilled in new developments and expansions for the downtown area.

The Standard at Athens and the Hyatt Hotel developments both cost almost $70 million together and play tremendous monetary roles in this investment for downtown. There is also an unnamed four-building-project between Hull and Lumpkin streets and Clayton and Broad streets, not to mention, the Classic center expansion, unveiled February 17th, played a $24 million part in this injection. Counted separately from this $140 million investment is a nine-acre Armstrong & Dobbs project, expected to cost $80 million. It will include retail space, space for an anchor tenant and about 250 housing units with about 600 bedrooms.

Focusing on the various housing developments in the downtown area, The Standard at Athens, a new $30 million dollar housing project opening in fall 2014, will be a six-story development with a rooftop infinity pool, sauna, cyber café, fitness center, indoor golf simulator, a courtyard and other amenities. There will be an eight story parking deck attached to this project, which will make it one of the larger buildings in the downtown area.

The Hyatt Hotel, said to open in late winter/early spring 2014, will have 188 rooms, 10 condos, as well as a restaurant. There is also the Armstrong & Dobbs tract will have 250 housing units within its development stretching from East Broad Street to Wilkerson Street.

Reise Reports, a real estate data and analysis company, has reported that the Athens area is ranked No. 150 in rent growth at 0.4 percent, which could affect how other apartments outside the interior of the city will be able to compete as more housing opens up downtown.

Some Athens delegates and university students believe that this new development will be an innovative opening into the future for downtown Athens.

Sophomore Elizabeth Turchan, an International Business major at the University of Georgia is looking to live off campus next year and is excited about new housing in the downtown area.

“Next year, I really want to live off campus and am ideally looking for housing that is a hop, skip and jump away from campus. I think it’s awesome that they’re building student housing downtown because I can walk to campus and wouldn’t be too far from the downtown night life,” said Turchan. “I expect that downtown Athens, just like any downtown area of any city already has a lot of traffic so I don’t see that as a real problem.”

Other officials and students believe that too much housing downtown risks dangers to the community.

“Building developments too close together is a hazard. A fire or anything could happen. Developers don’t really care nowadays,” said Vernon Payne, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner.

Junior Jacquelynne Rodriguez, double majoring in Communication Sciences and Disorders and Spanish, is strongly against large developments in the downtown area, as well.

“A lot of contractors tend to come from out of state and the money is essentially leaving Athens, especially when you have larger developments. We have to think about the economic welfare of Athens,” Rodriguez said. “With ‘mom and pop’ shops, people tend to care more about Athens, but when you have large scale contractors who are building larger developments, they’re more concerned with making money than with the well being of Athens as a town. Downtown Athens isn’t made for large amounts of traffic either with mostly two-lane roads and middle parking on most streets.”

The people are what contribute to Athens’ culture and character, but others retort that too many developments and housing could lead to overpopulation and danger in that area.

“I expect that downtown Athens, just like any downtown area of any city already has a lot of traffic so I don’t see that as a real problem,” Turchan said.

“If they keep developing downtown, there is going to be a massive amount of people in a small, centralized location at all times, which is cause for concern,” Rodriguez declared.