Athens Homeless Coalition Hires Director as Homeless Number Reaches New High

Athens Homeless Coalition Hires Director as Homeless Number Reaches New High

Homelessness in Athens has reached a new high this year, according to the Athens-Clarke County Continuum of Care’s annual count, which surveyed nearly 400 homeless people on January 24.

The annual point-in-time count tracks people experiencing both homelessness and non-homelessness, as well as the overall shelter capacity of the surrounding community. It counts those living in emergency shelters and transitional housing, as well as those living in places not designed for human habitation, including cars, if homeless service providers can find them. The 2024 count found 384 people unsheltered, up 12.5% ​​from last year.

While the point-in-time count provides the best available data on homelessness, it is notoriously inaccurate. Homeless encampments are difficult to find and are inherently transient. They may appear one week and disappear the next, but only those that existed on the day of the count are included. In addition, many homeless people may be sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a spare room, making them almost invisible during the annual count. These factors cause the point-in-time count to significantly underestimate the number of homeless people in Athens.

Still, we can compare this year’s count with previous years to gain important insights. For example, it is clear that the number has been increasing year on year at this point. The 2024 figure is the highest in the last decade, with only 2023 being higher.

Lillian Sronkoski

The data shows more sheltered homeless, who are relatively easy to count, than homeless, who are harder to reach. 2023 was an unusual year in that the number of sheltered homeless fell below the number of homeless. According to John Morris, chair of Athens’ Continuum of Care, this is because the Salvation Army shelter was temporarily closed in 2023.

During the count, researchers asked a series of questions designed to provide more information about the homeless in Athens. As in previous years, respondents this year were disproportionately black, predominantly male and spanned a wide range of ages. About 80% had been homeless for a year or more.

In public forums and local discussions about homelessness, it is often assumed that most homeless people come from outside Athens. However, the data does not bear this out. The majority of homeless people surveyed this year said they have lived in Athens for six years or more. Only 10 percent said they have lived here for less than six months.

When asked where they lived before becoming homeless, 82 respondents said Athens-Clarke County. Forty-two said they were from a nearby county in northeast Georgia, and 39 said they were from another region of Georgia or from outside the state. Only 35 of 232 respondents said they came to Athens for the services, compared to 177 who already lived here or had family or friends here. These numbers are consistent with previous surveys. (Chris Dowd)

Coalition of the Homeless Appoints Director

The Athens Homeless Coalition Board of Directors has appointed UGA graduate Michael Bien as its first full-time executive director.

The coalition – a collection of homeless shelters and other nonprofits that serve the homeless – reorganized over the past year, transforming from a loose collective to a more formal organization. Based on a 2023 strategic plan commissioned by Athens-Clarke County, county commissioners transferred $1.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the AHC. Bien’s responsibilities will include helping to decide how to spend those funds and setting measurable goals for the AHC.

“When you meet him, even more than his professional experience, he shines through his compassion, humility, curiosity and commitment,” said local pastor Laura Patterson, vice chair of the AHC board, in a press release. “He understands the importance of partnerships to address the major issues that intersect in Athens and in the lives of so many homeless Athenians. We as a board are excited to support the work he does in this community.”

After earning his master’s degree in public health from UGA, Bien began working at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, where he created the street outreach program. He then worked for the CDC Foundation, specializing in systemic factors and social determinants that affect health and homelessness.

“We want to better understand the extent and scope of homelessness in Athens, advocate for homeless individuals and families, and support our great service providers,” Bien said. (Blake Aued)