By Karen Middleton
Does Athens have a homeless problem? Depends on whom you ask.
Various reports have filtered in from several agencies and churches for years about homeless people living under interstate highway overpasses and in abandoned buildings. So a multi-disciplined group, meeting at the request of the Athens-Limestone Ministerial Alliance over the summer, tried to quantify the problem and determine the best way to deal with it.
ALMA Chairman, the Rev. Greg Patrick of Blackburn Road Baptist Church, said this week that his organization requested Limestone County Churches Involved to be in charge of forming a committee to study the problem. The committee issued its report this month, which culminated with a recommendation that the community establish a temporary shelter for homeless people.
“Based on our best research, we estimate at least 75 to 100 homeless people live here per day,” the report stated. “We define a ‘homeless’ person as anyone who lacks a regular, fixed, nighttime residence. This definition corresponds with HUD’s (Housing and Urban Development) definition.”
“You can drive through town and under the interstate at U.S. 72 and I-65 and see them, also under the interstate exit in Tanner, there were two tents,” said Patrick. “According to the Athens Police Department, there is a wooded area off Fifth Avenue, near the ballpark, where they stay. There are also people staying at some local motels who have no permanent address.”
Patrick said there are several local churches that offer limited help. Sometimes, churches and agencies refer homeless people to the Downtown Rescue Mission in Huntsville or the Salvation Army in Decatur, Patrick said.
“Other than those locations, there is nothing in Athens,” said Patrick. “But it makes sense that they would come here. We are located on a major thoroughfare. They may be coming here because of a rumor of jobs. Or the economy is better than some other places.
“We must acknowledge that there is the growing presence of homeless in our community. We can ignore it, but someone is going to have to deal with it sooner or later.”
Those who served on the Committee on the Homeless were: Amber Anderson, Family Resource Center; John Anderson, Limestone County Churches Involved; Mark Jackson, First United Methodist Church; Daisy McCormack, LCCI; Beth Patton, homeless coordinator, Athens City Schools; and Chairwoman Ida Terry, LCCI.
Terry has worked closely with the LCCI Food Pantry for several years, where she has had opportunity to see firsthand the plight of some of the homeless.
“One morning I was up at the food pantry and this man came in with just a little windbreaker on,” she said. “This was after the coldest night of the year and he said he had spent the night in the park. I asked him if he had a coat and he said, no, he only had his thin jacket. Can you imagine how cold that would have been? This was why I agreed to chair this study committee.”
This is the result of the committee’s research:
• Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson estimated there are 15 homeless people living from time to time under Interstate 65 and I-565 bridges.
• Beth Patton, Athens City Schools, said she deals with 43 homeless students — not families.
• Department of Human Resources Director Caroline Page estimates 100 homeless families live here.
• Athens-Limestone Hospital CEO Kelli Powers estimated that at the time of the study the hospital had five inpatients who were homeless.
• Lindsay Lane Baptist Church helps about three homeless people per week.
• Limestone County Food and Shelter say 200 homeless people live in cars, tents or with family members.
• Friendship United Methodist Church provides for eight to 11 homeless people a month.
• Central Church of Christ provides for four to eight homeless per month.
• One contact who preferred to remain anonymous but is involved with homeless on a regular basis says his organization deals with about 100 homeless per year.
• Amber Anderson of Family Resource Center says her agency deals with about 15 homeless per month.
Some of the options the committee discussed were continuing LCCI’s present course, which is to provide one or two-night stays in a local motel and food four times a year; provide sleeping bags and additional food in the form of prepared meals, and provide housing manned by local citizens.
The option most favored by the committee was number three, to pursue establishing a transient facility.
“First we would recommend that ALMA members invite Matthew Richards, executive director/CEO, Tennessee Valley Outreach, of Decatur, to meet with the committee about setting up a transient facility.”
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson said there are “a lot of different dynamics to consider when you’re talking about shelters.”
“Will it serve both adult males and females? Children? And how do we separate them?” asked Johnson. “There are just a lot of things we need to look at. We have, over the years, helped many people, especially in bad weather. They may have a breakdown or can’t afford a place to stay.
“We have always been able to work with churches and agencies. When the weather is really extreme, we provide transportation to shelters in Huntsville or Decatur where they can stay until they can get back on their feet — even if it’s in the middle of the night.”
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely said, likewise, his department will get someone to a shelter or food in an emergency situation. But he is hesitant to quantify the problem.
“I know there are a lot of people out there who are living from-pillar-to-post,” said Blakely. “We have our ‘frequent flyers’ here in the jail — people who are often jailed for drug offenses — who do not have a permanent address. I do not see a real problem in Limestone County.
“If someone can justify the need for a shelter, I might change my mind. I do know that if someone is hungry, no Christian person would turn them away. One thing that has to be considered is the cost factor versus utilizing something that already exists. I’m concerned about that.”
Blakely said if homeless numbers are increasing it might have something do with decreased funding for mental health services.