Homelessness in Athens-Clarke County was a crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of unhoused Athenians outnumbering the beds in shelters. The series of eviction moratoriums put in place throughout the pandemic by Congress and then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) blocked roughly 1.55 million eviction filings. Despite these measures, the Supreme Court’s recent refusal to renew the eviction moratorium on Aug. 26 leaves millions of Americans facing homelessness when their protections expired on Oct. 3.
A large part of Cedar Shoals and Howard B. Stroud Elementary School social worker Angela Gay’s work over the past 18 months involved making sure that families were aware of the eviction moratorium.
“We want to make sure families know their rights and if they receive an eviction notice that they know the proper documentation they can complete to prevent that eviction from happening,” Gay said.
According to Gay, roughly 3% of the total Cedar Shoals student population were served through the Homeless Education Program in the 2020-21 school year. Knowing how to receive eviction protection was crucial information. To apply for eviction protection while the moratorium was still active, applicants had to first meet a list of criteria that included specifics regarding income level, area of residence, COVID-19 transmission rates and statements regarding best efforts to pay rental payments and more. If the criteria fit the circumstances of the applicant, they could submit an affidavit to their landlord and the Magistrate Courts.
Jocelyn Crumpton, a case manager for the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, witnessed a surge in those seeking resources throughout the pandemic.
“We never have enough space to truly serve all the families who need our services. Since the pandemic, there has been a rise of families accessing our services. We also serve the surrounding counties as well because we’re the biggest and most comprehensive (nonprofit) shelter from here to Atlanta, so we get people from Oglethorpe County, Clarke County, Jackson County and Madison County calling us for services,” Crumpton said.
Similar to Athens Area Homeless Shelter, which has the capacity to serve up to 14 different families simultaneously, other emergency housing facilities such as Family Promise and Salvation Army reach maximum capacity daily.
“We do a lot of safety planning with families. If there is a friend or family member, you might find that you can stay one or two nights and then check in with us again. If it’s really dire we’ll sometimes reach out to churches to see if they have funding to help pay for a hotel room,” Crumpton said.
Churches in the Athens community play an integral role in providing funding, resources such as food and clothing and occasionally shelter. Daily Bread, a local community kitchen, serves an average of 135 to 150 people per day Monday through Friday. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has moved to an outdoor grab-and-go style system. Former Daily Bread Site Manager Tamala Baker says in addition to providing warm meals daily, the program has also offered social work support.
“We had a program where we had social services coming in and they were helping them (the guests) get their stimulus checks and get their social security and find places for them to stay,” Baker said.
The end goal is to find these families and individuals affordable housing (including utilities) that costs no more than 30% of a resident’s gross income as defined by the Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD).
However, according to a June 2020 Athens Wellbeing Project report, the majority of Athenians are spending more than what is “affordable” for them on housing.
“On average, Athens households, regardless of income level or racial/ethnic group, paid a greater proportion of their monthly take-home pay than the National Housing Act’s burden limit. Low income households spent, on average, 62% of their take-home pay on housing, more than double the recommendation. 3 in 4 low-income households lacked affordable housing,” according to the report.
The demand for affordable housing properties far outweighs the number of housing units available in Athens. According to Crumpton, barriers such as low credit scores, evictions on record and felonies limit the properties available to homeless families.
“Most of the families we work with have evictions on their record. That’s kind of how they came into homelessness. If you have an eviction anywhere on your record from the past eight years, it is very challenging to find a landlord,” Crumpton said. “Because housing is so hard to find in Clarke County, landlords who maybe weren’t as picky have become pickier. Before, if you had an eviction maybe five years ago, they’d be willing to work with you. Now they have so many other applicants who don’t have evictions, they’re going to prioritize them over other families.”
The Athens Housing Authority (AHA) operates 15 different public housing neighborhoods throughout Athens. With 1,100 family units in total, two of the 15 different neighborhoods are dedicated housing for elderly residents. Geraldine Clarke, who has been with the Athens Housing Authority for the past 45 years and currently serves as the Director of Resident Support, says that the current waiting list for a unit at one of these properties is approximately 2,000 applicants long. While there are no current plans to build more public housing properties, Clarke says a few mixed-income properties such as Bethel Homes and Columbia Brookside are underway in Athens.
“They are not building any public housing, but the new trend is mixed-income housing,” Clarke said. “The idea is to just have a variety of people living together, and of course, that makes for a better community.”
However, Crumpton and Gay emphasize a need for an increase in physical homes that are accessible to low-income Athens families.
“We need more affordable housing. We have very little affordable housing for families. Most of our housing is catered to (college) students,” Gay said. “Nothing wrong with that. We love our college students but at the same time, we can’t forget our natives that live here and have to make a living here every day.”