Linda Hughey and her grandson Elijah have two rules to guide them as they navigate being unhoused: No sleeping on the street or in a shelter. That’s a challenging task.
Hughey, who retired from Emory Healthcare in 2021 after 16 years as a patient access specialist, lost her housing last summer. Her 23-year-old grandson had been evicted from his apartment shortly before that. “I was on the streets,” he said. “And then my grandmother came on the streets with me.”
The pair eked out a nomadic lifestyle through the second half of 2022. They rented a motel room in Athens, Georgia before running out of cash and then spent months sleeping in various churches. But after a January flash flood swamped their lodgings at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, they were nearly out of options that didn’t involve sleeping under the stars. That’s when they heard about First Step, Georgia’s first government-sanctioned homeless encampment.
Linda and Elijah walked across town and gained admission the same day—a stroke of luck as there are rarely vacancies. Now, the grandmother and grandson share one of the 50 gray military-style canvas tents that make up First Step—a tent village in a gravel lot behind a decrepit school building in northeast Athens.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in late March, Linda sat peacefully on a couch watching a Perry Mason rerun inside a shady outbuilding turned entertainment room. Meanwhile, Elijah was engrossed with a PlayStation game next door. “Oh my goodness, it’s nice here,” says Hughey. “Everyone that works here is nice, and most people that live here. I like it.”
Proponents of sanctioned encampments say they’re a safer, healthier alternative to the informal communities of tents and lean-to-shacks that have become a familiar part of our cities’ landscapes. But critics say state-authorized camps are often paired with measures that criminalize homelessness. There’s also little evidence that they reduce it; some say they do the opposite by diverting funds that could be used for more permanent solutions.
Others have mixed feelings.
“Calling it a halfway measure is pretty accurate,” says Ryan Hersh, executive director of Bigger Vision, an Athens homeless shelter. “Hopefully, we’re just in this transitional period where it leads to more affordable housing available to people in Athens and the surrounding area—and the whole country.”
But if Georgia follows Texas and Missouri’s lead and adopts a bill to ban overnight camping for homeless people statewide and instead create infrastructure for state-sanctioned camps—which it nearly did in the last legislative session—Athens’ experiment could be either a model for the future or a stark warning.
The Hardy Camp
To understand why First Step’s encampment is popularly known as “the Hardy Camp,” you must meet Charles Hardy Jr., who was its director until he was abruptly fired in mid-May.
The 50-year-old Athens native cuts a physically imposing figure—tall, toned, and tattooed—offset by his gregarious personality. He has the natural charisma of a pastor or populist politician.
Many of First Step’s residents don’t talk specifically about the camp’s staff, but instead refer to “Charles” or “Mr. Hardy.” One of First Step’s board members, Teresa Smith, says she was drawn to volunteer for the organization after watching Hardy speak about the camp on social media. “The people here love him,” said Smith before Hardy was fired. “I know he’s doing an awesome job with the community.”
That natural charm seems to run in the family. Hardy has a famous sister, Buffie Caruth, who became an early viral Internet star in the 2000s. She acquired the nickname “Buffie the Body,” and appeared in magazines and rap videos, then played “Big Booty Judy” in the 2006 film ATL. The first time Buffie visited First Step, she wept, according to Hardy, after seeing what her brother had helped build. For his part, Hardy said he doesn’t have much interest in fame or fortune, which is why he spent much of his own money on the camp’s amenities.
He believed that it’s all part of a divine plan.
“You got to think—I built this with my brain,” Hardy said in March as he nodded toward the camp. “My mom died of cancer ten years ago. And she gave me this vision three hours before she died. So that’s what brought this all about here. Nobody told me how to do this—all I knew is that I had a heart for helping people and supporting the homeless. So I got this property, and here we are.”
But controversy and legal problems have plagued First Step, with Hardy—who was fired as the camp’s director in mid-May—at the center of it all.
The trouble began last June when a former employee filed charges against Hardy for sexual assault. He was investigated on charges for sexual battery, terroristic threats, and influencing a witness, but no arrests were made because no probable cause was found, according to Athens police.
Later, another former employee accused Hardy of sexual battery, but no charges were filed. He was also arrested in August for an argument with two women, including a former resident, that escalated into a physical altercation. On May 3, he was found guilty of misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to two years probation and a $1,400 fine.
Meanwhile, a draft of an independent audit released May 10 also found that Hardy was using a debit card to spend grant money without authorization from the board, and First Step lacked basic accounting paperwork.
A day after Hardy’s misdemeanor battery conviction, Athens-Clarke County manager Blaine Williams sent a letter to Athens Alliance Coalition—the nonprofit organization that runs First Step—ordering them to remove Hardy from leadership and ban him from the premises. Hardy was placed on administrative leave and banned on May 12. Other Athens Alliance Coalition board members are stepping in to run the camp in Hardy’s absence, but the contract with First Step, which expires at the end of 2023, is unlikely to be renewed.
The Athens experiment
While Athens’ foray into a municipally funded tent city may have misfired, the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved First Step and allocated the funding last year, because it decided doing nothing was no longer an option, faced with the city’s growing number of homeless residents.
Homeless censuses are notoriously difficult to administer. However, a 2022 ACC survey counted 321 individuals in Athens who had experienced homelessness: Two-thirds were living in emergency or temporary accommodations and one-third were living on the streets.
That’s roughly a 30% increase from 2020 when the count was 210. Compared to the rest of Athens, a disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness are Black, a veteran, or experiencing mental illness. About 40% of those living on the streets said they had trouble accessing sheltered beds.
“By and large, we are full pretty much every night,” said Hersh, the Athens shelter director.
For years, a large portion of Athens’ unsheltered population gathered in makeshift camps in the North Oconee River Park area and “Cooterville,” an informal encampment nestled in the trees off of Willow Street under a CSX railroad bridge. Unhoused people live in them for a variety of reasons. Emergency shelters may not have room for some; others don’t like a program’s rules, want more freedom and autonomy, or simply like a sense of community. The downside is that the lack of sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure increases the risk of infectious diseases.
Meanwhile, unhoused people are vulnerable to violence and arson. In Atlanta, one homeless man was found burned to death in his tent near Piedmont Park in February and another suffered the same fate in Cobb County in March.
Athens’ homeless camps were cleared in November 2021, with the stated reason that they were either located on private property or in the forest adjacent to highways where the Georgia Department of Transportation conducted work. The Athens-Clarke County Commission decided it needed a better place to shelter these unhoused people–even if temporarily—while their encampments were being cleared.
“We were on kind of a tight timeline to move people to a safer space that was better monitored and featured more systematic access to amenities, including food and behavioral health care,” says Athens mayor Kelly Girtz. “So that’s when the idea of a structured encampment on county-owned property operated by a third party emerged as one prospective solution.”
Athens officials turned their gaze five hours south towards their SEC rivals in Gainesville, Florida, where the University of Florida is located, as a potential model. The north Florida town had allowed a tent city called “Dignity Village” to flourish on a softball field outside of a shelter, with temporary tents placed on dozens of 10-by-10-foot pallets. Before the encampment closed in 2020, half of its 222 residents were moved into permanent housing.
In August 2021, the Athens-Clarke County Commission allocated $2.5 million of its federal COVID-19 relief funds for an organization to run a local camp for a year, with the potential for renewal. It was a controversial decision; some commissioners argued that the plan was a sleight-of-hand instead of a real solution—where unhoused people would simply be relocated instead of provided stable housing.
Even so, the commission approved the plan by a 6–5 vote. Girtz cast the tiebreaker vote. “I’d spent about 20 years here before I was mayor. And so, unfortunately, I knew a lot of families who had fallen on hard times and ended up on the street,” he says. “It was not unusual for me to encounter somebody whom I might have known when they were 13 or 14, and they’re now in their 30s and still homeless. To kind of have that ground-level view of people’s real challenges and wanting to create a bridge while we develop a longer-term plan—that was really what drove me to support this.”
The winner of the contract—and the only bidder—was a fledgling non-profit called the Athens Alliance Coalition, which would create the county-funded encampment under the name First Step. Hardy, its CEO, said before he was fired that he knew that many in Athens were skeptical because of his nonprofit’s inexperience.
“But you think about it. Who in the state of Georgia had experience running something like this?” said Hardy. “It’s a question I asked, and nobody had the answer to.”
Internment camp or summer camp?
From outside the gates, First Step resembles what critics fear state-sanctioned encampments may become: internment camps for the unhoused.
It is tucked away behind the once-abandoned North Athens Elementary, a haunting relic of the segregation era in the South. The squat brick building was originally designed to educate Black children in an industrial part of town away from the sight of Athens’ white people. Perhaps uncoincidentally, the school was built directly across the street from a poultry plant owned by Pilgrim’s Pride.
Today, the sight of the boarded-up school, the stench from the poultry processing factory, and the noise from cars speeding down U.S. Route 129 make for an unpleasant sensory experience. A barbed-wire fence rings the encampment, and residents come and go through the gates of a guard station facing Alexander Street. Two security guards stationed at the encampment around the clock brandish metal detectors and conduct thorough searches of guests and their belongings. Weapons are banned, as are alcohol and drugs. Security cameras are everywhere.
But, inside, the camp is more welcoming: Daily meals are served in an outdoor kitchen, and there are porta-potties, running water, and solar-powered heated showers. The 55 people who live there can use an improvised office with a computer and Wi-Fi or take a break in a TV room covered in murals painted by residents. In the evenings, a pool table is a popular gathering spot.
“I would never call this a permanent solution. But it can be a bridge.”—Athens mayor Kelly Girtz
Weekly mental-health counseling is available, and residents stay in top-of-the-line canvas lodge tents—the kind you might find at Bass Pro Shop. Some tents have welcome mats in front of their entrance flaps, and residents can store possessions–many donated items from the community—in either their tents or an on-site locker room. By contrast, in most traditional homeless shelters, people must vacate the premises in the morning and take their personal belongings with them, because theft is common.
The camp’s residents all have different stories of where they slept at night previously: an aging car in a Wal-Mart parking lot, under a highway overpass, on the streets of downtown Athens, or in a ragged tent staked somewhere in the forested hills.
Some of First Step’s residents work at the chicken plant across the street during the day and return to eat dinner and sleep at night. Others are employed at the camp itself. Carl Johnson, a 28-year-old Chicago native, does janitorial work and manual labor. One day in March he was breaking down the now-vacant tent of Ken Allison Barrett, who’d graduated from the camp the day before.
Barrett, 58, was an electrician in Athens until a heart condition prevented him from working. He slept in a truck for nine months until moving into First Step. He says his eight-month stay there gave him a second chance at life. “Before, I felt like nobody cared to help in the whole wide world. And then with Charles, he let me in and helped me, and it’s just given me a different outlook on people.”
Barrett successfully moved into an apartment in Athens on March 23, but he’s still employed at the camp, because it helps pay the bills, and he enjoys spending time with the residents and staff.
Johnson chuckles when imagining where he’d be living if not at First Step. “Not going to lie, I’d probably be right back to jail,” he says, explaining that he was just released from jail three weeks earlier. Now he’s trying to clean up and save money in hopes of pursuing a career in finance.
An “urgent crisis”
Over the last decade, America’s homeless population has swelled to the point that cities can no longer ignore the men and women sleeping on sidewalks, underpasses, and in mini-tent cities.
According to the most recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were over 580,000 Americans who experienced at least a night of homelessness during a national census conducted in January 2022. Of those, 40% were living outdoors or in buildings not meant for human habitation. If all these unhoused people were located in one city in Georgia, it would outrank Atlanta as the state’s largest city by nearly 20%. As it is, the Peach State is currently home to about 10,000 residents without a place to live.
“We’ve seen unsheltered homelessness nationwide go up every year since 2015. So this is an urgent crisis, no question,” says Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance of Homelessness, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.
“I think it’s another sort of attempt to manage homelessness, and it really doesn’t get us anywhere closer to ending a person’s homelessness.”—Cathryn Vassell, the CEO of Partners for Home
In June 2022, Oliva testified before Congress about the scope of the problem and the need to take immediate action. The Biden administration seemed to agree with Oliva and other advocates, announcing that it aimed to reduce homelessness by 25% by 2025.
Biden’s roadmap doubles down on “Housing First” solutions—a model of care that treats access to housing as a necessary first step to getting people off the streets rather than using the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish the unhoused. Advocates say people in secure, stable housing are better positioned to utilize supportive services for mental health and substance use issues or job training.
“Getting people access to the services that they want and need is a really important piece of the puzzle, but to be clear: Affordable, safe housing solves homelessness,” says Oliva.
Call it pragmatism or desperation (or maybe a little of both). Still, some cities like Athens have been testing more outside-of-the-box solutions, given that building affordable housing is a prolonged and expensive process – and has only grown more so since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the American economy with sharp spikes in rents and home prices, along with inflation.
“I could almost track the rise in unsheltered homelessness along with both the rising housing costs and the very limited supply of housing generally that we have right now in this market,” said Girtz, the Athens mayor.
First Step is one of about 40 state-sanctioned encampment pilot programs that have popped up across the country in the last five years. They’ve been especially prevalent in West Coast cities with significant unhoused populations, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Diego. Since 2017, Oakland has built three sites with twenty tiny wooden cabins apiece to house approximately 120 unhoused residents.
Portland, Oregon, has gone even bolder. In November, the city council voted to ban camping in the streets and allocated $27 million to build six official outdoor tent communities of 100 people each run by a nonprofit organization.
“We must end self-directed, unsanctioned camping in the city of Portland,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler before the vote. “We deal with mental health issues. We deal with substance abuse issues. We deal with human feces. We deal with naked people running down the street – people who are unable to even acknowledge who or where they are because their afflictions are that serious. It is beneath us as a moral and ethical society to have that happening in our community. And therefore, we need to do something differently.”
More Georgia cities may be forced to consider something like First Step in the near future.
This spring, the Georgia Assembly took up Senate Bill 62, which in its initial form would have banned camping on public property and instead established a legal framework statewide for sanctioned camping areas.
During a state Senate committee hearing, Sen. Carden Summers (R-Cordele) said he was inspired to sponsor the bill after driving around Atlanta during the legislative session. “I made it a point to ride around almost every night and take 30 minutes and just drive a different route and count the homeless people on the street, living in the corners, living on the edges, living on the sidewalks, living under bridges,” he said. “If you were to take your eye off the road and run off the road, you’d wipe out eight to 10 people.”
But the final version of the bill—which Governor Brian Kemp signed in May—was stripped of sanctioned-camping provisions and funding for transitional housing. It instead prohibits municipalities from adopting written policies against enforcing camping bans and requires an annual audit of homeless services statewide.
That means Georgia’s homeless laws will stay largely the same. That could change next year, as a statewide camping ban bill may make a return appearance during the 2024 session.
The Georgia bill’s initial language was nearly identical to legislation promoted by the Cicero Institute, a conservative think-tank that vehemently rejects the housing-first approach. (Nine anti-camping bills proposed in six different states since 2020 have contained language very close to the Cicero Institute’s model bill, the “Reducing Street Homelessness Act.”)
Many Georgia Democrats fought the bill, along with a coalition of homeless advocates and nonprofit groups, arguing it would criminalize the unhoused and divert federal and state money from permanent supportive housing into sanctioned encampments.
“If I’m going to spend money for shelter, I’d rather spend money on hotels or more humane types of emergency shelter,” said Cathryn Vassell, the CEO of Partners for Home. “I think it’s another sort of attempt to manage homelessness, and it really doesn’t get us anywhere closer to ending a person’s homelessness.”
The bill’s signing was cheered on by Cicero Institute’s chair Jon Lonsdale, who wrote that Georgia is among a growing number of states that “reject the Marxist idea that American capitalism causes homelessness and that only far-left activism can fix it. Instead, they are ushering in a new era in homeless policy, where accountability is king.”
What happens next?
First Step’s tents will be packed up in December, but that doesn’t mean the camp’s 55 residents will be forced back onto the streets. Athens is exploring more permanent options, says Girtz, such as buying a local hotel and converting it into supportive housing. Another serious option is setting up a village of 64-square-foot wooden cabins built by a company called Pallet, which has built 100 such communities in 85 cities across the country.
“I’m definitely eager to see the whole range of things that we can move to beyond this,” said Girtz of Athens’ tent city experiment. “I would never call this a permanent solution. But again, it can be a bridge.”
But the debate rages on if it’s a bridge to nowhere.
For his part, Elijah plans to leave his First Step tent before his 24th birthday this August. Eventually, he’d like to join the army. “I like it here, okay,” he said. “But I don’t like being a homeless man.”