I recently read an article in the Athens Banner-Herald by DJ Simmons which caught my attention entitled “A win-win: Sparrow’s Nest provides job, pay for Athens’ homeless and helps keep streets clean”.When I first began to read it it felt like I was reading a novel. James Scott from Sparrow’s Nest has an epiphany while grabbing some pizza downtown on a Saturday evening. He sees a man cleaning up trash and desperately wants to say thank you to the man for doing this but because of traffic was unable. On his way back he rolled down his window and finally gave his thanks. To his surprise it was Mayor Kelly Girtz.
The article goes on to say that seeing the mayor do this inspired Mr. Scott to ask himself what else could he do to help the community? This reflection led to the epiphany- ‘to establish a program that would give the homeless people an opportunity to earn money by picking up trash, thus helping to clean Athens’. Hence the title “A win-Win….. “ situation. Mr. Scott then proposes this program to the mayor and a partnership is born among Sparrow’s Nest, a non-profit called Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful which receives “seed money" from the local government and Steve Middlebrooks, CEO of Heyward Allen Toyota. The program, A Safe and Clean Athens, kicks in and has been working for a month.
I am familiar with Mr. Middlebrooks and his participation with the non-partisan, non-profit organization- Athens Classic Inc. Members of this non-profit are residents, local business people, and community leaders concerned about the direction and leadership of the Athens community. Their main areas of focus are Public Safety, Public Education, and Public Health. I am aware that they have tried many times to capture the mayor’s attention at meetings and have offered ideas, solutions, etc… The mayor’s reaction has always been to listen but has not never acted on any suggestions. I was surprised to hear about a partnership with Mr. Middlebrooks, so I called him to ask about it. He was just as surprised. According to Mr. Middlebrooks, Mr. Scott called him for a one-time donation. He was told there had already been “seed money” given to start, approximately $1,500. He is familiar with Sparrows Nest and Mr. Scott, so he gladly donated $2,000 from his foundation. The article states that the program has been going on for only a month and Sparrow’s Nest looks forward to more funding to keep it going.
I highly respect and admire the work Mr. Scott does. It’s not easy to work on community issues and to constantly look for funding. After all, rather than fund services like the one Mr. Scott thought of at the time he saw the mayor picking up trash, the mayor and commissioners had already approved a homeless tent encampment and subsequently budgeted $1.5 Million dollars thru Calendar Year ‘23, on top of the already $250,000 approved for upgrading the camp site. So, I understand when Mr. Scott sees so much money coming from the Federal Government to our local government and people like himself on the front lines do not get but $1,500 of “seed money”. Instead the mayor and some commissioners work diligently at passing non-enforceable ordinances and proclamations to appease a few while no real money goes to those on the front line like Mr. Scott.
The idea to give homeless people the opportunity to work was first presented on July 20, 2021 at a Mayor & Commissioners Agenda Setting Meeting. Susan Monteverde, a local resident of Athens, researched the topic outlining the problem with suggestions and many questions. The idea of paying the homeless for work was one of many suggestions. She wrote “...perhaps the city could offer temporary trash pick-up work to homeless residents?...” (page 6/7) Copies of her research were given to the mayor and commissioners at this meeting. Susan asked the mayor to please address her questions. The mayor said he would but never did address them. She also suggested a Town Hall so residents could provide input. There was no response. During the next meeting which included a vote to establish the encampment, she brought up the fact that her questions were never addressed and again no response from anyone.
That same evening when the vote took place, Gorden Rhoden, a resident of Athens, delivered 500 signatures to the mayor and commissioners with comments and alternative ideas to a tent encampment as well as ideas such as employment for the homeless. The vote was a tie and it was unto the mayor to decide whether he would table the vote to look at the 500 ideas from tax paying citizens’ or not. The mayor deliberated in less than a minute and chose not to consider any ideas. Ideas, just like the one Mr. Scott had, went to the garbage.
Also, days before the voting on the tent encampment, Dr. Luis Ortiz from Young Harris Church offered the mayor to take in the homeless into his church for a grant of $100,000 a year. Dr. Ortiz sent a petition to the mayor through his secretary. The mayor never responded. In the petition he offered the gym area, sleeping accommodations for 50-60 individuals, 3 showers for men, 3 showers for women, a kitchen, and 2 meals a day- a light dinner and breakfast from 10 pm to 7am and police safety. If done timely, the homeless would have had a warm place to rest before the cold weather hit. Now it’s too late, the cold weather is upon us and they are still sleeping outside. The grant money, a fraction of what the tent encampment would cost, would have paid for staff and police safety. Dr. Ortiz then approached the mayor at the “Faith in Blue” event at his church on Oct 11, 2021 and asked him if he had received the petition and the mayor said he had, but was looking at many other things and that he would get back to him. The mayor never got back to him.
Obviously, the mayor would not bother himself with alternative ideas or suggestions before, during or after the tent encampment vote.
So why is the mayor listening now? He hasn’t been listening for the past year to citizens and the business community about a safe and clean Athens? Is it because reelection time is coming and he feels he has to appear as though he cares to listen? Is it because the tent encampment is shaping up to look more like what it is, a bad decision and now he has to come up with a better solution? Will we be seeing the mayor attending to 911 calls soon too? The mayor and some commissioners lack of support for the police department has created low morale and we have lost many good police officers which affects the safety of the whole community.
The local government has received millions of dollars from the Federal government on top of our higher taxes and has approved to spend it on things like a $314,000 for a single public toilet (downtown) with a $30,000 a year maintenance price tag and so many other items that only a few benefit from…. But only $1,500 is given to a non-profit for a great program that puts homeless people to work .
The mayor, city manager, and some commissioners are battling the effects of bad decisions and a bad image. Image problems that come from seeming to work with an inner circle of people, not listening to the whole community of Athens and a lawsuit brought by the internal auditor, Stephanie Maddox. All of this has brought on a huge transparency issue for the mayor, city manager and a few of the commissioners. So, with reelection fast approaching for the mayor, I am not surprised that he is trying to appear more open to ideas and reaching out to individuals he normally does not care to hear from.
Residents of Athens- ask questions, attend town hall meetings which are being set up by a few to create a demand and with very few people showing up, they claim that the whole community is asking for federal fund goodies that only go to some in the inner circle. Let’s first take care of neighborhoods that need street lights, water treatment, storm drain issues, roads paved, on and on. No one should want bike lanes, community gardens, the firefly trail, artwork, an expensive public toilet, pedestrian overpasses… etc until the needs of these neighborhoods are met. Ordinances and proclamations mean nothing if the local government does not meet the needs of residents in our community who lack basic services and are being neglected.