State-sanctioned encampments, like this one in Athens, can provide shelter for the unhoused. But are they deferring permanent solutions?

Proponents of sanctioned encampments say they’re a safer, healthier alternative. Critics say there’s little evidence they ultimately reduce homelessness and could divert funds that could be used for more permanent solutions

State-sanctioned encampments for unhoused people

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Linda Hughey and her grandson Elijah have two rules to guide them as they navigate being unhoused: No sleeping on the street, and no sleeping in a shelter. Neither is easy.

Hughey, who retired from Emory Healthcare in 2021 after 16 years as a patient access specialist, lost her housing last summer. Shortly before that, her 23-year-old grandson had been evicted from his apartment. “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 hotel room in Athens 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 the Hardy Camp, which is what locals call the sanctioned homeless encampment on Barber Street in east Athens, named for the man who ran it until mid-May: Charles Hardy Jr.

Hughey 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 occupy one of the 50 gray, military-style canvas tents in the camp.

The site—officially named First Step—turned a year old in March and is tucked away behind the abandoned North Athens Elementary. A haunting relic of Southern segregation, the squat brick building was made to educate Black children in an industrial part of town, out of sight of Athens’s white people and directly across the street from a poultry plant.

First Step is one of dozens of 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. In November, the city council in Portland, Oregon, voted to ban camping in the streets and allocated $27 million to build six official encampments.

Proponents of sanctioned encampments say they’re a safer, healthier alternative to the communities of tents and lean-to shacks that have become a part of our cities’ landscapes. People living on the street are vulnerable to violence and arson; these informal camps can also lack sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, which adds to the risk of infectious disease. But critics of state- and city-authorized camps say there’s little evidence that they ultimately reduce homelessness. In fact, some say they do the opposite by diverting funds that could be used for more permanent solutions.

State-sanctioned encampments for unhoused people
Linda Hughey, left, and her friend Irene Relerfore both live at First Step.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), more than 580,000 Americans experienced at least one night of homelessness in January 2022. Currently, about 10,000 people in Georgia don’t have 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 to End Homelessness, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden’s administration is aiming for a 25 percent reduction in homelessness by 2025. Biden’s road map doubles down on housing-first solutions—a model of care that treats housing as the solution to homelessness, rather than supporting stopgap measures like sanctioning encampments or, worse, outlawing unsanctioned ones, which effectively punishes unhoused people for being present in public spaces. In March, HUD awarded $879,000 to Athens–Clarke County out of an overall $2.8 billion package designed to support housing-first efforts nationwide.

During the peak of the pandemic in 2021, the Athens–Clarke County Commission decided it needed a better way to shelter unhoused people until longer-term solutions emerged. That August, the Commission allocated $2.5 million (from the nearly $60 million it received in federal Covid-19 relief funds) for a third-party organization to run a sanctioned camp for a year, with potential for renewal. It was a controversial decision, with some commissioners arguing that the plan was a sleight of hand: Unhoused people would simply be relocated rather than provided with stable housing. Even so, the Commission approved the plan by a 6–5 vote, with Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz breaking the tie.

From outside the gates, First Step resembles what critics fear state-sanctioned encampments may become: internment camps for the unhoused. 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. The encampment is ringed by a barbed-wire fence, 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. Residents can use an improvised office that has a computer and Wi-Fi, or they can take a break in a TV room covered in murals painted by residents. In the evenings, a pool table is a popular gathering spot. 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 Shops. Some of the tents have welcome mats placed in front of their entrance flaps. Residents can store possessions in their tents or an on-site locker room. “It’s nice here,” said Linda Hughey, watching an episode of Perry Mason inside a shady outbuilding turned entertainment room. “Everyone that works here is nice, and most people that live here. I like it.” Upwards of 200 people are on the waiting list.

But controversy and legal problems have plagued First Step. In June 2022, a former employee filed sexual assault charges against Charles Hardy Jr., the CEO of Athens Alliance Coalition (AAC), the nonprofit organization that runs First Step. Months later, he was arrested after an argument with two women, including a former resident, escalated into a physical altercation at the camp. Hardy was removed from his position as director of First Step and banned from the camp by the Athens Alliance Coalition board on May 12, about a week after a judge found him guilty of misdemeanor battery in the latter incident. As of press time, he was on administrative leave with AAC.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz says the contract with First Step, which expires at the end of 2023, is unlikely to be renewed. “I would never call this a permanent solution,” says Girtz. “But again, it can be a bridge.” Without affordable housing, however, advocates say it may be a bridge to nowhere. Athens is exploring more permanent options, including buying a hotel and converting it into supportive housing, or 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. “How do we temporarily provide the necessary provisions given the resources we have, and can we transition to a better version of it?” Girtz says.

More cities may eventually be forced by the State of Georgia to consider some version of First Step: During its legislative session this spring, the Georgia Assembly took up Senate Bill 62, which, in its initial form, would have banned camping on public property and established a framework for sanctioned camping areas. The bill was nearly identical to legislation promoted by the Texas-based Cicero Institute, a conservative think tank that opposes the housing-first approach. (Nine anticamping 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.”) The final version—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 that refuse to enforce camping bans and requires the state auditor to audit homeless services statewide. But an urban camping ban could reappear during the 2024 session and—if passed—lead to more sanctioned encampments.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but, according to Cathryn Vassell—CEO of Partners for Home, a nonprofit that coordinates homelessness services in Atlanta—there has been no discussion of sanctioned camps here. She has no interest in importing the model either: “If I’m going to spend money for shelter, I’d rather spend money on hotels or more humane types of emergency shelter. 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.”

Regardless of whether sanctioned camping expands into Atlanta, Elijah plans to leave his tent and move to the city 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.”

Ryan Zickgraf is a reporter for nonprofit news outlet Atlanta Civic Circle. This article was produced by ACC and adapted for our July 2023 print issue. Read the extended version here.

This article appears in our July 2023 issue.