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Sunday, April 1,2012

Town Hall meeting to focus on housing for needy

By Milt Greek

In the past year, issues regarding housing for those in need have made headlines in our community. On Thursday, April 12, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Athens Community Center, there will be an Athens Town Hall Meeting to discuss these complex and emotional issues.

In one case, the proposed apartment complex providing housing for mentally ill people and their families on Graham Drive has resulted in neighbors expressing concern about the situation and filing a lawsuit to stop the construction of the building. In another instance, the inability of Good Works to house homeless people and their families has made headlines. There was a lot of controversy surrounding a decision several years ago by the Athens Board of Zoning Appeals that rejected a request by Good Works to expand its shelter on the west side. As with the situation with Graham Drive, many neighbors on the west side expressed opposition to the expansion.

The challenges for housing in the city of Athens are complex and myriad. Beyond a substantial rental market and difficulty for many ordinary people to find affordable housing, there are often concerns by long-term residents that neighborhoods and housing stock are in decline. Many who work in Athens do not live in Athens for these reasons. In this environment, special housing for those in need creates strong concerns that the limited areas for long-term residential housing are being further jeopardized. 

Residents have expressed concern about the strength and safety of the community. In the case of the Graham Drive development, it is my understanding that people and families in the neighborhood have concerns that housing for mentally ill people may include those who are convicted felons, who may be using or selling drugs, or participating in other illegal or dangerous activities. There are also concerns that statements were made prior to construction that the site would be used as a parking lot, rather than housing for people in recovery, and this has resulted in a loss of trust that the concerns about illegal and dangerous activities will be dealt with effectively, if at all.

Proponents of creating housing for those in need point to the substantial improvement in people's lives and their ability to live productively when they are assured some form of housing. For some populations, such as the mentally ill, Fair Housing laws assure that housing cannot be denied to them because of their condition. For many working to house those in need, the economic and social pressures of the last few years have increased their client populations and resulted in the need to expand services.  It is a possibility that as local area homelessness increases, failure to expand shelter space could result in people without homes attempting to live and spend time in public areas such as parks, libraries and shopping areas.

In the case of Good Works, as a west side resident, I frequently hear statements by my neighbors about their various concerns regarding the shelter. In speaking with people at Good Works, however, I discovered that west-side residents rarely if ever express these concerns to Good Works staff. As a result, both groups remain unaware of the perspectives of the other. 

The April 12 Town Hall Meeting will feature groups seeking housing for those in need, including the Ohio Chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Good Works, Habitat for Humanity and the 317 Board presenting their viewpoints and the needs they seek to satisfy. The meeting will not just be a series of one-sided presentations. Substantial time will be used for community members to publicly indicate their viewpoints in an attempt to create a true dialogue. The presence of community members and that dialogue are essential for progress on these issues.

Because the intent of the April 12, 6:30 p.m., Town Hall Meeting at the Athens Community Center is to create and maintain a meaningful dialogue on these issues, we need community members with all perspectives to come, listen to each other, and clearly express their concerns and thoughts on this pressing issue.


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