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'First Step' encampment welcomes first unhoused residents

After some delays, Athens’ first sanctioned homeless camp began welcoming residents this week.

The Athens Clarke County commission voted to approve the camp last December after extensive debates, giving local nonprofit Athens Alliance Coalition Inc. control over its operation. The camp, First Step, opened on Wednesday off Barber Street.

According to reports from the Banner-Herald, over a dozen individuals had moved into the camp by noon. Staff of Athens Alliance Coalition helped move people from a soon-to-be dismantled camp on Willow Street to First Step, which provides tents, personal necessities and other facilities.

The government-sanctioned camp is meant to provide one step toward permanent housing and ease pressures of crowded homeless shelters in town. Athens Alliance Coalition was awarded a $2.5 million contract to operate the camp as part of the commission vote, funded by American Rescue Plan dollars.

Approximately 32% of homeless Athens residents were unsheltered and 68% were sheltered in fiscal year 2020, according to the annual Point-in-Time count required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A total of 210 homeless individuals were identified in that count.