Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz defended Friday the new homeless encampment after mayoral opponent Mara Zúñiga called it a safety concern.
“The homeless encampment on Barber Street is a safety improvement,” Girtz said at a press conference at the University of Georgia. “It’s a safety enhancement.”
The First Step encampment opened on March 16. Girtz cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the encampment in August.
Girtz is running for reelection against five other candidates. Zúñiga, former treasurer of the Clarke County Republican Party, opposed the homeless encampment in an open letter to Athens for Everyone published on the Classic City News website.
“It’s a huge liability not only to the city but to local homeless and those who are being brought out of town who will be gathered like cattle into one place regardless of their background,” Zúñiga wrote.
According to the 2020-2021 Athens-Clarke County Homeless Point-In-Time Count Data on The Athens Homeless Coalition website, a group of volunteers counted between 151 and 159 homeless individuals in one night on January 27. Of the 101 individuals that agreed to be interviewed, 70% had spent at least one night in an encampment, 48% said they had not heard of the intention of a government-funded encampment in Athens, and 83% said they would make use of this encampment.
Zúñiga and others opposed the encampment due to concerns about excessive waste and attracting more homeless people from outside of Athens during public comments at the Mayor and Commission meeting in August.
Girtz said the encampment “funnels” people toward a variety of resources including mental health and employment resources. The goal of the encampment is to point people in the direction of finding more permanent housing.
Girtz also said the government in conjunction with the Homeless Coalition to lay out a homeless service strategic plan “to make sure that people get back to successful lives.”
“Recognize that those homeless service provisions aren’t like collecting people who are wandering out of ‘The Walking Dead’ into an encampment, but those are real human beings,” Girtz said. “And every one of those people, at some point in life, had to make the decision for the first time to say, I guess this is the day I sleep on the street for the first time.”
Girtz also announced that the LGBTQ+ rainbow sidewalk could be finished in May as the ongoing construction on Clayton Street is now “out of his hands.”
He laid out his plan of redevelopment and said he wished to continue to improve the affordable housing crisis.