As a University of Georgia student, whenever I think of “Athens,” the first word that pops into my head is “college town.” To be able to harbor this notion of Athens has made me exceedingly privileged. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that even though we may believe that Athens is a college town dominated by predominantly middle-class college students, numerous, more permanent, Athens residents do feel the burden of financial woes.
As of 2017, the United States Census Bureau cited that 35.5% of residents in Athens-Clarke County are living in poverty (“U.S. Census Bureau quickfacts: Athens-Clarke County, Georgia,” 2017). This is more than double the 2016 national average of 12.7% (“The Population of poverty USA, 2018”). According to the 2018 Athens-Clarke County Homeless Point-in-Time-Count, there are 212 homeless individuals in Athens—166 sheltered and 46 unsheltered (2018 Athens-Clarke County homeless point-in-time count, 2018). In fact, the Athens homeless rate of 0.186 percent is higher than the national average of 0.176 percent (Reisigl, 2016), a clearly significant difference.
So how does one become so burdened that he or she eventually becomes homeless? It is actually more likely than you may think. There are instances of individuals suffering from student loan debt who have no choice but to leave their homes (Beato, 2017). However, the principal precipitator of homelessness is mental illness. If we consider how challenging severe mental illnesses can make basic day-to-day tasks, then it is no wonder how a multitude of individuals suffering from mental illness wind up homeless (Yoganathan, 2017). This problem can be further exacerbated by a lack of a support network for these individuals, from a dearth of accessible treatment centers or facilities offering mental health services to insufficient familial connections. Moreover, the fact that Athens is a college town may be a contributing factor to homelessness. Oftentimes, housing in Athens is specifically designed for college students, which disadvantages local Athens residents seeking to rent single-family homes. The multitude of student housing diminishes the availability of single-family homes severely. Also, a fair amount of college students rent two-to-four-bedroom homes after moving off-campus, dislocating other non-college students Athens residents (Gratas, 2018).
This all leads us to the final question of: what can we do about this epidemic? The most important step we can take is to address the origin of homelessness. Some programs that have made a dent in the homelessness crisis include services such as Advantage Behavioral Health Systems or the Athens Area Homeless Shelter. These programs strategically aim to eradicate the root causes of homelessness: addiction, mental illness, and a lack of job-searching skills (Reisigl, 2016). Accordingly, programs and services of this nature should be prioritized and emplaced on a larger scale. Unfortunately, as the weather gets colder, many homeless individuals will face the freezing cold while sleeping on the streets at night. Accordingly, more emergency shelters, such as Bigger Vision—a coed adult winter emergency shelter—should be constructed (Beato, 2017). Finally, for the average college student, an easy effort is to pay more attention to these issues. One of the biggest grievances cited by homeless individuals is that they are often treated as invisible (Abercrombie, 2014). Being treated in such a manner is often dehumanizing. Losing your home should never constitute losing your humanity.
2018 Athens-Clarke County homeless point-in-time count. (2018). Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a39260ef43b5528f614a9c8/t/5b3e748803ce6438fa571595/1530819721791/2018 ACC PIT COUNT.pdf
Abercrombie, C. (2014, July 10). Athens homeless count highlights overlooked population. Retrieved from https://www.redandblack.com/uganews/athens/athens-homeless-count-highlights-overlooked-population/article_4bd8621e-8eb5-11e3-8c4b-001a4bcf6878.html
Beato, B. (2017, October 11). No home for the summer: The Athens homeless community is often overlooked. Retrieved from https://www.redandblack.com/athensnews/no-home-for-the-summer-the-athens-homeless-community-is/article_827d88aa-674f-11e7-91bd-73aa15e880a3.html
Gratas, S. (2018, October 24). Pushed out: Middle-class, working families struggle with housing availability. Retrieved from https://www.redandblack.com/athensnews/pushed-out-middle-class-working-families-struggle-with-housing-availability/article_549cf3a8-d260-11e8-9f5a-7bdb2d9cdc88.html
Reisigl, J. (2016, November 27). By choice or by crisis, the stories behind homelessness in Athens. Retrieved from http://www.onlineathens.com/local-news/2016-11-26/choice-or-crisis-stories-behind-homelessness-athens
The Population of poverty USA. (2018). Retrieved from https://povertyusa.org/facts
U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Athens-Clarke County (balance), Georgia. (2017, July 1). Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/athensclarkecountybalancegeorgia
Yoganathan, A. (2017, November 06). OPINION: Provide mental health aid to people facing homelessness in Athens. Retrieved from https://www.redandblack.com/opinion/opinion-provide-mental-health-aid-to-people-facing-homelessness-in/article_39bf86b0-aeba-11e7-a3d3-9fe6d576f9ad.html