ATHENS, Georgia (AP) – On rainy nights, Cheryl Gamble sometimes found shelter in an empty warehouse on Willow Street.
She and her fiancé Clint Marable would use the facility’s towering structures to protect them from currents of water.
“We were just looking for a warm place out of the rain,” recalls Gamble, 47.
Gamble and Marable, 38, met in Athens a few years ago after the two of them did not have permanent housing due to various circumstances. They bounced around Georgia and from job to job, lived in motels and sometimes on the street.
But last month they returned to Athens where they said resources are available for the homeless and they are more familiar with the area. That same month, Athens-Clarke District Commissioners passed a resolution to combat homelessness.
The facility the couple once stayed at is now one of many places being considered by the Commission for a New Government-Approved Homeless Camp under this resolution.
Gamble and Marable are just two of many at risk of homelessness in Athens. In 2020, Athens-Clarke County counted 210 homeless people in the city according to an annual point-in-time census to document homelessness. The numbers represent a rough estimate, and people in double apartments or couch surfing are not included in the count.
Darius Willoughby said he first experienced homelessness after breaking up with his current ex-wife over a year ago. He said he eventually withdrew to live with his mother because he was unable to live alone before his own bad choices made her drop him off at a shared shelter.
“My mother brought me here to Bigger Vision,” said Willoughby, 39. “A lot of new people are dropped off here.”
The shelter on North Avenue is located between two of the larger camps in Athens. In North Oconee River Park, a small community known by some as the “New Tent City” is staying near the shelter for overnight stays.
“It’s like a small community,” said Willoughby. “That’s how I see it – we are all family. We all try to help each other as best we can. “
Willoughby, who has a learning disability and suffers from depression, said he has been fortunate to find temporary shelter over the past few months by living with a friend. But a new facility could provide a transition home for the homeless, he said.
“I’d love to have the facility because on rainy days we might be able to come in and get the rain out, too,” Willoughby said, adding resources to help people get on their feet.
Bobby Smith, 67, shared similar feelings. Smith, a longtime Athenian, said he was forced into homelessness when housing prices skyrocketed after he retired. Smith is one of many who have pitched tents in the North Oconee River Park.
“It’s not that I want to be here,” he said. “But my money situation doesn’t fit into the $ 1,800 rent category … it has put me in a situation where I can’t afford to get it. You must have a certain amount of money. “
Smith said he is putting in less than $ 800 a month between his social security and the money he gets for his disability. He said a new facility could help him and others who have been homeless for years as housing has become increasingly priceless.
He said he also hoped that any new facility in town would have kind and respectful people to help those in need.
“You need to have a place for people with disabilities,” said Smith. “For people with social security who don’t get a place because we don’t make enough money.”
In interviews with the Banner-Herald, several people affected by homelessness cited programs and resources such as vocational training during the day as important. Many said there were few places for the homeless during the day and left them on the street.
“I would like this new facility to have some transparency and a human element that understands that people have things to do with their daily lives,” said Michael Duggan, 35, who has been homeless for several years. “There should be people who work there who know forgiveness, know about second chances and how to grant them.”
Even those who do not have accommodation in a separate, more stable camp under the railroad tracks on Willow Street will be relocated in the near future.
“CSX has received several complaints from local landowners about a homeless camp on our Willow Street property,” said Sheriee Bowman, a spokeswoman for CSX Transportation. “We have contacted the Athens-Clarke District Police Department about the complaints to find a solution that will lead residents to safer living conditions.”
However, many said a new facility could help residents move safely while also helping those in other camps who stay outside at night when they cannot find a bed in a shelter.
Gamble and Marable took on the daily challenge of securing one of the 35 beds in Bigger Vision. With a phone between the two of them, they have to call one by one to reserve a bed, they said, and thus for many lost important time in the rush to get to the next accommodation.
Some nights, Marable makes sure that Gamble can get in while he’s sleeping outside. On other nights, they are both forced to sleep in the woods on Jefferson Road and stay away from larger camps because of the possible dangers.
Marable said if they are unable to get into a shelter they start their day in a tent. After waking up, they take a provisional shower with shower gel and water bottles.
“I hate being washed in the woods because anyone could be watching you,” she said, adding that Marable is on watch for her. “But there’s nowhere to wash … that’s kind of scary to be a woman.”
During the day, they go to the library to continue job hunting and take a break from the sun, Gamble said. For transport they use the bus, which currently has free rides.
However, she hopes a new facility could help create a bed for the many who still do not have permanent shelter, including many single women. Like many others, she said having a facility with daytime programs is important and a place where people can lock up their belongings while they go to interviews.
“Training or computers that we could look for jobs would be good,” said Gamble. “Something where homeless people could learn a trade so they have the tools to find work because some of them can’t read, count, or anything like that.”
Charles Hardy, president of the Athens Alliance Coalition, an organization that has helped the homeless, is often seen on Willow Street handing out tents and groceries. He said his organization got involved because he wanted to change something.
“I’m just fed up with city officials sitting around wanting to do nothing,” Hardy said, adding that he sees a different person without a home every day, some from states far away.
It is important to have boots in the local community and to help people directly, he said. This firsthand experience shaped some of the conversations he had with city officials to pass a resolution to combat homelessness.
“Who would you rather listen to: a person who sits behind a desk all day or an organization that is out there and sees it every day?” Said Hardy.
What the facility or warehouse will look like is still unclear, but the mayor and the commission will discuss the location of the site on Tuesday.
Hardy, like others, said he hoped the facility would help move people without permanent shelter to stable homes.
But while Marable and Gamble join others in hopes of a new camp, they are still working hard to change their situation. Marable said he recently got an interview with a Wendy’s in town, but shared concerns that the pay still might not be enough to secure permanent housing.
“We just need the help,” said Marable, “because we’re really working and trying to get out of here.”