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I-TEAM | Faces of Homelessness in Augusta: mental health

Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 6:37 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The homeless outreach team hit the streets of Augusta for the fourth day of a six day mission. Their six-day mission: survey the city’s exploding homeless population to identify needs and gaps in service.

The I-Team partnered with the outreach team for weeks to tell the stories of homelessness across our city, from a lack of affordable housing to mental health barriers and still to come – how the foster care system is adding to the crisis. Our shared goal is to shine a light on the problem, but also better understand how we got here and what solutions will be needed to help these neighbors in dire need.

We found nearly 40 percent of Augusta’s homeless population surveyed so far are in desperate need of mental health services.

Mental illness can lead to homelessness and homelessness can lead to mental illness. It’s a cycle now thrown into the mix of even more problems to overcome – a global pandemic.

Senior Investigative I-Team Reporter Liz Owens hit the streets over several weeks with the task force and the more people we met, the more stories we heard, the more we began to see the invisible barriers imprisoning our neighbors in need to the streets.

“I was supposed to go back and get my medicine.” Explained Tameka.

Cherry tells us, “Bill Gates knows who I am former president trump knows who I am if you call and ask him, they will confirm it.”

BARRIER ONE: NO ACCESS DAY SHELTERS; FRAGMENTED SHELTERS DON’T MEED ALL NEEDS

We meet Cherry in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Culture Center down the street from the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope.

She is among the dozens exiting the shelter every morning. There is no day shelter in the city of Augusta. There is no one stop center for homeless services.

“I just want to go home to my house.” Cherry tells Lieutenant Danny Whitehead.

Lt. Whitehead: “Where is that?”

Cherry “371 Mill Ridge Way.”

A quick search through property tax records shows Cherry does own a home in North Augusta but she needs more than a ride across the river to get her off the streets.

Transportation we found is a huge barrier to mental health services in Augusta.

Lt. Whitehead explained a lack of transportation leads to much bigger problems. “Some go weeks months without medication.”

Lt. Whitehead’s precinct includes Washington Road. He’s watched the homeless population nearly triple since this spring – skyrocketing 150% overall.

The city of Augusta’s emergency housing voucher program placed homeless in motels here for up to 90 days but overall, it’s been a band-aid not a solution.

BARRIER TWO: TRANSPORTATION

The I-Team found that’s because that forty percent of all the city’s homeless, surveyed by the street outreach, team suffers from mental illness. So, their individual needs go beyond just housing.

“They have to be on medication. That’s the issue the transportation is not there or if its there it’s a limited amount of time they have that transportation.” Explains Lt. Whitehead.

Serenity behavioral health systems is a PATH provider. PATH or Projects for Assistance in Transitions is a state funded program designed to provide services to end the cycle of homelessness for persons who are seriously mentally ill.

But we clocked it and found it’s about eight to twelve miles away from the motels on Washington Road and a shelter downtown.

“Yes, the city has buses that run but they are on a time schedule and some of these people who are struggling with a mental health condition they’re already struggling with life. If they have been off medication for a while just for them to comprehend where they need to be is a struggle.”

The I-Team found Georgia ranks dead last in the nation in access to mental health services.

The insanity of it all is that something as simple as medicine can keep people in jobs and homes.

People like the one we will call “Sunny.”

The street outreach team found Sunny sitting on a blanket in her pajamas along Skinner Mill near I-20. She was cold. She was wet. She was disoriented and she was completely disconnected from reality.

“I doubt I will forget her for a while.” Says Lt. Whitehead. “She is 30-years-old. She graduated college (and) she was a Kindergarten school teacher since 2017. She has experienced a mental health condition and we don’t think due to drugs; probably due to some type of childhood trauma. Her mental disorder has led to her being homeless.”

The Resource Development Coordinator for CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority, Lynda Barr, shared Sunny’s story at the homeless task force meeting last month.

“The lady realized she needed some treatment so she signed the paperwork. I want to tell you something else about this woman: she has a college degree and (was) a professional woman in our community. She has family that loves her when she gets back and family that she can connect to, but they didn’t know where she was.”

It took the street outreach team bringing her dry clothes and food over the course of three days before she agreed to get help.

BARRIER THREE: CLINICIANS

Involuntary commitment requires either an order from a court or physician. The pandemic delayed both processes. Clinicians assigned to the sheriff’s office allowed deputies to bypass both processes.

“If they don’t want to get an evaluation, or get help, we can’t take them to get help against their will. They have constitutional rights.” Says Lt. Whitehead. " We had two of them and (of) those clinicians, if we had a mental health call or suicide specifically, they were able to respond as well. What that did was give another tool for officers specially if that person needed a mental evaluation.”

The ITEAM found state salary for clinicians is not enough to retain them here in Augusta. The clinicians’ office at the sheriff’s substation has sat empty since august.

To help better understand the situation, the ITEAM’s Liz Owens sat down with Richmond County Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton.

Liz asked, “Would the jail be less populated if you had clinicians on staff?”

“Oh, there is no question about it. It helps us divert people instead of taking enforcement action and having to incarcerate them.” Chief Deputy Clayton tells the ITEAM he’s even asked for help at the marble palace.

Liz: “So, you went to an elected official and said we need clinicians on staff? (Explaining) We don’t need a state (clinician) because they keep leaving, they don’t pay enough. What was their response?”

Clayton” Well, I haven’t heard back they said they would circle back with me and I still haven’t heard a thing.”

Liz: “I can’t help but think that it would be cheaper on the taxpayer, cost the city less money, and save staff time if you tackled this on the front end and not on the back end.”

Clayton: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

The I-Team combed through the city budget. On page 31, we found Augusta-Richmond County received 82 million dollars in American Rescue Plan funds.

Commissioners voted to spend part of the funds on blight/affordable housing, public safety, economic development, and infrastructure. We found 11 million remains available and unassigned.

Back on the streets, Lt. Whitehead tries to help as many as he can, including Cherry.

“We going to give you a ride to where the soup kitchen is. Know what I am talking about? We have someone over there doing assessment and will talk to you and that’s part of the process. Our ultimate goal is to get you back home.”

Cherry agrees to go.

It’s one more person Lt. Whitehead has worked tirelessly for weeks to get off the streets and into care. The humanity of all involved trying to help - shines through.

“We are going to put a plan together and help you. Sometimes we need help.”

But getting her access to daily help, access to medication and transportation and access to clinicians outside of a jail setting, are barriers the city is going to have to figure out how to break down and solve to help our area’s homeless truly find their way back home.

The street outreach team has reached more than 150 homeless over four days...of those 115 are need of mental health services, sixteen of which are veterans.

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