Georgia homeless camp in danger of being abolished; residents weigh the options


ATHENS, Georgia (AP) –

Flora Harlow has grown used to change.

In recent years she has been in and out of permanent accommodation, sometimes working while being homeless. Today, she lives with others in a small camp known colloquially as “Cooterville” by some.

The tight-knit community nestled in the trees off Willow Street and under the CSX railroad tracks has evolved over the years, according to Harlow.

But the encampment is expected to be cleared by November 12, and although a new government-approved encampment may be operational soon after, some remain skeptical of its benefits. And many have yet to find a better alternative.

Harlow, who goes by name Flo, said she was sure some members of the homeless community would choose to move into the sanctioned settlement.

“But for the people who kind of depend on this place, that might not be good,” she said.

Cooterville has become a town-like space for those who live there. When one person stops to announce that a church is distributing food and non-alcoholic drinks at Bigger Vision, another camper reminds others that they are planning to cook dinner that evening and that all were welcome. .

As Harlow sits alongside a fallen tree, Tink, a camper’s dog, gets up to join in the conversation. Everyone knows Tink, seeing her as just as much of the extended family as any other camper.

“She demands attention,” Harlow joked.

Since its founding, Cooterville has grown to encompass a largely self-regulating community. Harlow said around 8 or 9 people live in the camp permanently today, but the number has sometimes increased to 15.

“Before we let someone in, we’ll all talk about it and agree or disagree,” she said. “You can’t just come in and do what you want when you want. “

The camp is also a space for those who may not live there permanently, but who have forged close ties with those who live there. And people who have moved into apartments sometimes come back to see everyone else, according to Harlow.

“Everyone needs a place to come here,” she said. “If they don’t feel safe, they come here.

An iron rule is that those caught stealing are quickly kicked out of the camp, she said. They also ban those who fight because it attracts attention.

While the encampment is referred to as Cooterville by some, Harlow said the real Cooterville was actually higher up the hill, away from the main road. The man who originally built it over a decade ago was named Cooter and infamously had raccoons as pets, she said.

The camp was eventually pushed further down the hill due to the theft of campers on CSX property, Harlow said. Since being pushed closer to the road, the encampment has attracted more attention, and not everything has been good.

A spokesperson for CSX Transportation said the company had received several complaints about the camp from local landowners. A September 5 deadline was initially imposed on campers to relocate, but it was pushed back to November.

The delay came after city police informed CSX that a government-sanctioned encampment was underway and could be an alternative, according to City Manager Blaine Williams.

“From what I understand, I was not part of the conversations, it is that CSX has agreed to extend this deadline to try to bring it closer to the moment when the sanctioned homeless camp will be operational,” he said. -he declares.

The city is currently looking for an organization to run the encampment, which will determine what it will eventually look like. But Williams said CSX worked with police and local authorities to welcome campers to the property.

“By their right, they could ask the police to deport them,” he said. “So I want to thank CSX for trying to work with the community on this.”

In Cooterville, many are wondering what this camp will look like and who will be involved. Some expressed a feeling of having been left in the dark about the whole process, unsure whether they would even get a place in the camp.

Campers each have their own personal journey that has led them to Cooterville. And for some, they said their time there led to skepticism when it comes to receiving help.

For Harlow, the trip to Athens came after she moved in and started caring for her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia several years ago. When her mother died, she discovered that her stepfather had taken out additional mortgages on the house, which was eventually foreclosed.

In the street, she met her uncle who had previously lived homeless in Athens.

“He was the one who taught me how to get by here,” Harlow said. “He passed away a few months after my mother. I went from staying with her and taking care of her, to coming here and her trying to teach me to be homeless.

Over a year ago, she was working in a Family Dollar near the camp. Harlow said a store manager was willing to work with her because she worked hard, but when he finally left the store a new manager kicked her out after finding out about her life situation.

“The first sentence she said to me was, ‘In Madison County, the homeless don’t even come to my parking lot,’” she recalls. “I was fired in less than a week.

After the camp was moved closer to the road earlier in the year, campers said people started throwing trash at them.

“We have people driving up and dropping off their garbage at the foot of our camp,” Harlow said. “They’re just going to stop and drop stuff … I mean just garbage, and that makes us look bad.”

Barrett Smith, who does not live in the camp but spends time there often, shares similar feelings.

“People throw their garbage at us under the guise of donations,” he said. “The streets are littered with trash, but I try to come here on the weekends and clean up some of the trash.”

Smith was a bar in Athens for a decade working at places like the Manhattan Cafe and the Flicker Theater & Bar. But when the pandemic struck, he found himself out of a job and quickly falling behind on rent.

“My last shift was on St. Patrick’s Day last year,” Smith recalls.

After rebounding in the southeast, it returned to Athens in April. He said since his return he has seen the homeless population explode.

“Before COVID, you didn’t see tents like this,” he said.

Smith said that while he was not enthusiastic about the government-sanctioned encampment, it was a step in the right direction. But many people with trauma may choose to take to the streets because it’s an easier way to live, he said.

“With a life of abuse, it’s a little easier to navigate this area,” Smith said.

However, Smith and others have all shared that there are real dangers in being homeless, especially at night.

“It’s shocking some of the things that are happening,” he said.

And when the body of a woman known to those in the camp was found in North Oconee River, rumors began to spread about what could have happened. He highlighted the real danger of living without permanent housing.

Harlow said there are serious attacks on women and men that often go unreported. But despite the danger, for some, the sense of community provided by the camp was a help.

Around the camp, Harlow is known as a mother figure. Make sure people take their medications while trying to maintain a stable living environment. She is often assisted by Kat Ryan-Butts, a camper who has been in Cooterville since 2019.

“Me and Flo are like the queens,” Ryan-Butts said. “I call us queens because everyone comes to us to solve problems.”

As the deadline approaches, many are trying to figure out what this will mean for them.

Oscar Sutton, who has lived in Cooterville for a few months, said he had no plans to move to the government-sanctioned encampment. He said he was worried about clustering so many random people from the homeless community.

“It’s going to be chaos,” he said. “I’m not going to do it. If I have to stay here, I’ll just find a place to stay, but I won’t.

After finding his tent and his belongings burnt down one day, he emigrated to Cooterville where a friend already lived.

“The only place I knew I could come and install something was next to him,” Sutton said.

He said people generally got along in Cooterville and while he understood that people had to leave the property, he would choose his own solution.

Sutton said he has since applied to work at the town’s chicken factory and hopes to land the job before the deadline.

“If I get there, my whole situation will change,” he said. “I’m going back to an apartment.

With the uncertainty of who is running the camp, what it will look like or if they will enter, others are also looking for alternatives.

Harlow currently has no plans to move to the government-sanctioned encampment, but said she was grateful the deadline was pushed back. Days before September 5, her partner, Robbie Pierce, suffered an ulcer rupture and was hospitalized.

She said she was grateful for the extra time as without Pierce she was worried about having to secure and move their belongings on her own.

Pierce has since recovered and is looking for a new living space alongside Harlow. He said they were even in talks to eventually live on the property of an associate they know, where they won’t immediately be threatened with firing.

“Me and Flo will be fine,” Pierce said. “Some of the others, but I just don’t know. “

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