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I-TEAM | Evicted: The face of homelessness in Augusta

Published: Nov. 8, 2021 at 6:40 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Take a drive through downtown or along Washington Road – it’s nearly impossible to not notice the growing number of men, women, and children living on the streets of Augusta.

We found it’s a startling increase. Early estimates show Augusta’s homeless population has doubled, maybe even tripled, since the start of the pandemic.

Our I-Team is uncovering the untold stories of people with jobs, and housing vouchers, still becoming homeless in our community.

Senior investigative reporter Liz Owens looks at the problem.

The exploding housing market is partly to blame for the skyrocketing influx of homeless families in Augusta. Home sales, rents increasing, and a limited number of landlords accepting housing choice vouchers has created challenges too great to overcome for families already struggling to make ends meet.

Traci Greene would usually be at work but it’s eviction day in Richmond County.

Traci: “We prayed for a good outcome last night before everyone went to bed.”

The single working mother of two teenagers has faced many of life’s toughest battles alone. Today is no different as she stands alone in front of a judge.

Judge: “Where you from?”

Attorney: “Charleston South Carolina but close enough.”

Judge: “I know they usually send them from Atlanta.”

Attorney: “That’s true, your honor.”

It’s just about as unusual to have an out of state lawyer representing an LLC in eviction court as it is for Traci to have to defend herself from eviction. She pays her rent. She has a job. She takes care of the home. Yet she got an order to vacate the family home after living there for years.

The I-Team first introduced you to Traci a few months ago – when her landlord sold her rental home to an out of state investor. The I-Team found he’s filed to evict nearly 25 other families in Augusta – living in other properties he’s purchased during the pandemic.

Judge: “This lawyer representing your landlord, and they are dismissing the case at this time.”

Traci: “Okay.”

The lawyer did not explain to the judge why he suddenly decided to stop the eviction. Traci believes it because of what she filed in court.

Traci: “He wasn’t aware of me having the voucher.”

She’s on a housing choice voucher. The federal government does not allow new landlords to evict tenants with vouchers until the current rental contract expires. She needs the voucher despite earning $13.20 an hour at her full time job. The I-Team found that is still not enough for the single wage earner to afford rent in Augusta.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, she would need to make two dollars more than what she is currently earning to afford rent in her neighborhood. The housing choice voucher bridged the financial gap until now.

Traci: “A little relieved but still scared because there is still no place to find – no place to go.”

The I-Team checked and found there are zero one and two bedrooms available for rent on Augusta Housing Authority’s website. We also found only one of the eight new apartment complexes built in Augusta since 2015 accepts vouchers.

Traci: “Everywhere I’ve looked it’s like $1,200-$1,300. I know I cannot afford it.”

More than half of all renters in the Augusta-Richmond County are what the government calls “rent overburdened.” Meaning they are paying more than 30 percent of their gross income to rent.

We wanted to see the problem for ourselves. We hit the streets with lt. Terry Norman of the Richmond County Marshal’s Office. He and other agencies are surveying our area’s growing homeless population to find out what led to their homelessness.

Norman: “Hurts my heart man it really does your 27 out here on the streets.”

Bill sleeps on the bench by Riverfront Marina when he finishes his shift at work. We aren’t showing you his face or telling you his real name because he doesn’t want his coworkers to know he is homeless. His own church family doesn’t even know.

Bill: “It’s not the money part it’s the credit. I am trying to work on that but that’s what’s keeping me from finding something.”

On top of affordability, the I-Team found it’s even more difficult to find any housing with other barriers like bad rental and bad credit history. Traci is only a year from a bankruptcy falling off her credit report. An eviction would reverse the last four years of hard work to clear up her finances.

Traci: “Putting eviction on my credit will make it harder for me to find a place if it is put on there.”

The clock is still ticking. Her new landlord can file to evict her again once her lease is up.

Traci: “Hopefully we will find a place before all of this starts over.”

Traci: “It’s still a road to travel.”

If not Traci and her children will join the hundreds of other families on vouchers. The I-Team found living in Augusta hotels.

Belinda: “Life in a hotel is better than being under worst situations...but it’s not good.”

Belinda Scott moved into a motel room after living a year at the Salvation Army. She had an apartment before the pandemic but she says the new owners would not renew her lease. She has yet to have found a place she can afford.

Belinda: “Cry a lot because of the situation right now.”

Traci’s children will have a home for the holidays but she will need an even bigger miracle after the first of the year.

Liz: “What is your plan B?”

Traci: “I do not have one. I will probably take money in savings and stay at hotel room until we find somewhere to go.”

Hotels are a last line defense against homelessness in Augusta. More than 300 people have moved into hotels rooms since April of last year. But hotels come with their own sets of challenges for families living there. Our investigation-face of homelessness continues on Thursday.

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