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I-TEAM | Continuing the coverage: The face of homelessness in Augusta

Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 6:49 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A startling find by the I-Team is bringing a city-wide crisis to light. Augusta is now home to the highest percentage of homeless people by population – and the number is only continuing to skyrocket. Men, women and children with no roof, no bed, and no shelter to turn to at this time.

Right now the demand for services like food and shelter increased a staggering 150 percent just since this August.

It’ hard to imagine our problem, made worse by the pandemic, is more dire by percentage than Atlanta, Athens or Savannah, but local non-profits and local community servants from the sheriff’s office to the marshal’s office now believe it after seeing it for themselves. Some telling us it is “worse than they imagined.”

The I-Team found many of these neighbors in need are those who simply can’t find affordable housing. Many of them do have jobs, full-time jobs with recent pay increases – yet that is still not enough to cover rent in Augusta as many properties are out of reach for a single wage earner.

Others are disabled and qualify for rent assistance, but too cannot find anything available.

Meanwhile, our city resources and outreach programs are clogged with far too many men women and children to help at once.

Step outside and walk around downtown and just ask… you will find plenty of people in need willing to tell their story.

We found Cherry near Washington and 13th Street. She tells us she slept under a bridge the night before. “I was four (when I went into foster care). I was never adopted by my foster mom. She just kept foster kids.”

Brandon works for a local restaurant downtown full-time. He’s still on the streets. “I’ve been homeless for over a year.” His father his homeless alongside him.

Each story is as different as each face. We meet Belinda during the motel chapter of her story.

“I don’t have a place to stay.” Belinda says she lost her apartment just before the pandemic. She spent most of 2020 at the Salvation Army’s Emergency Shelter before moving into this motel room in April. She doesn’t have the support of a family.

She’s an adult product of the foster care system. She tells us of the nights she’s had to stay on the streets. “I went to Denny’s sit up all night—I sit up all night because where am I supposed to go out now? "

At the start of the pandemic, Mayor Hardie Davis and city commissioners put preventive measures in place to keep vulnerable populations like Belinda off of the streets.

At the start of the pandemic, April 2020, leaders were told all of the city rescues for the homeless were full – and the worst of the pandemic had yet to come to the Garden City.

The City responded by partnering with nine local hotels and motels to house people most at risk of becoming homeless during the shelter in place orders.

The I-Team found a total of 329 people were issued emergency housing vouchers since the City started the partnership last spring.

We met a mother named Julie at another hotel in town. A room that looks more like an inpatient hospital suite than a hotel room.

“We also have a nebulizer machine for breathing treatments if he needs it to clear his lungs.” Julie tells me she needs to disguise her identity because she’s a domestic violence victim. She and her son have had to move several times and even change their names for protection.

Julie qualified for an emergency housing at the Marion Barnes Resource Center but couldn’t use the voucher because of a clause that says occupants must be ready to leave any room given within 24 hours notice to the City.

Julie can’t move her disabled adult son in and out of room at a moments notice. She’s used her savings to pay for the last 60 days here. She has enough to cover one more week.

“I have given up everything to the point we are homeless.”

City leadership knew homelessness would be an issue in the pandemic and that’s why they put measures in place. What they couldn’t have known is how big the homeless crisis would become in Augusta over then next 18 months.

EARLIER COVERAGE:

HUD and COVID relief funds covered the rent of permanent housing for up to six months.

Mayor Davis lifted the last COVID restriction in April of this year.

Boots on the ground like Richmond County Sheriff’s Lt. Danny Whitehead began noticing a surge in the homeless population a couple months later.

“Definitely in the last few months prob seen triple the number of homeless people.”

He doesn’t know why. So he’s part of a local task force hitting the streets to ask that same question in order to attempt to solve what can be done.

The last count of the homeless was in January of 2020. Three months before COVID forced businesses and schools to close and unemployment began to soar. The data shows there was a disturbing trend in Augusta even before the pandemic.

From 2019 through 2020, the number of unsheltered people increased 75% in Augusta, compared to only a 7% increase statewide in Georgia.

Chronic homelessness rose even more sharply – by 158% in Augusta in the same time frame whereas chronic homelessness rose statewide by only 21%. That’s higher than Atlanta, Athens and Savannah.

As disturbing as these trends are, it’s important to remember this data is before COVID-19 struck in the United States so this data does not reflect pandemic challenges.

A man named Eugene Smith was brave enough to show his face on camera as he told us his life story. “Foster care care system from ages 12 to 21… some of us are barely making it.”

Smith has faced challenges all of his life. First came foster care, then came HIV, now a pandemic and homelessness. He sleeps here and there and sometimes finds shelter. “The Salvation Army has a 90 day program that I went over. I slept last night in the parking garage but I am waiting on Garden City for a bed. With that stability, I can start looking for a job.”

Deputies like Lt. Whitehead, along with Marshals and social workers all want to know the stories behind the faces filling the streets in Augusta, night after night, day after day.

That’s why they are spending weeks together hitting the streets, the parks and the homeless camps surveying the homeless population to find out directly from them – how they got here in record numbers.

Lt. Terry Norman explains the goal. “A lot of times, you cannot fix the problem until you figure out what the problem is.”

Belinda’s housing problems triggers depression. “I cry a lot because of the situation right now.”

We found Belinda on the streets a month later after we met her in the motel room. She was looking for help Mercy Ministries.

Yet another story, yet another face, of homelessness in Augusta.

Areas containing high poverty rates, lack of affordable housing, and a large percentage of renters are most likely to have large homeless population. Augusta checks all of those boxes. The officers and social workers out looking to find and identify the gaps in services tell me one giant hole they are seeing is a gap in mental health services leading to homelessness.

The I-Team would like to thank all of these men and women for being brave enough to share their story with us so that we all may learn what is really happening here in our city.

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