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I-TEAM | Cycle of addiction, homelessness: How we can do better

Published: Dec. 9, 2021 at 6:54 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - This is the season of joy and cheer, but for dozens of local families, this Christmas is one overwhelmed with heartbreak and loss.

The I-TEAM found 61 people died of an overdose in Richmond County this year, a 71 percent jump since the stay-at-home orders first went into effect.

Addiction counselors warned in 2020 that grim consequences in the form of more deaths due to overdoses would be expected, but the reality on the ground in Augusta is grave.

As we’ve reported previously, addiction is closely tied to mental illness. National statistics show people are twice as likely to become an addict when mentally ill.

But, getting help for either is hard in Richmond County and as the I-TEAM uncovered, It’s even more difficult for those living in poverty with no place to call home.

For two months, the I-TEAM has hit the streets with the street outreach team to understand why our homeless population has skyrocketed since the spring. We’ve reported on the 150% increase in homelessness in Augusta in just a matter of months.

We continue to piece together this problem, and the picture is coming into focus. Missing resources that other cities have is becoming a life-or-death issue here from the streets and woods to motels and crumbling old buildings, we meet people struggling to survive.

“I was trying,” says a woman named Tameka. We found her living in a halfway burned-out house. Her clothes were dirty. She hasn’t showered. Her speech is slow.

Marshal Shawn Rhodes asks Tameka if she’s safe. Tameka is honest.

“I really don’t want to be here.”

We find out Tameka actually has a government assigned caregiver. The state of Georgia classifies Tameka as an at-risk adult.

Social Security even appointed a representative payee to manage her funds so that Tameka has all her basic needs met.

It’s unclear why nobody sounded the alarm when she stopped getting her medication five months ago. Rhodes cannot make sense of it.

“She has a caregiver, and that place (where she’s living) is a disgusting mess.”

Tameka tells senior I-TEAM investigative reporter Liz Owens she stopped going to Serenity Behavioral Health Systems in Augusta.

“I didn’t have a way,” says Tameka. No real home. No job. No transportation.

Serenity provides numerous essential services for those in need in our area from mental illness to developmental disabilities, disorders, addiction and more.

Very quickly, it is clear Tameka needs immediate help when Rhodes spots her black eye.

“He said I know you’ve been out of the room. I said no, I haven’t, and he said yes, you have.”

Liz Owens: “How long did he lock you in the room for? Most of the day?”

Tameka: “Yeah, most of the day.”

Owens: “Did he ever make you do things you didn’t want to do?”

Tameka: “Yeah. I told him to stop.”

Tameka needs more than a safe place. She needs affordable housing. She needs medication. She needs a way to get medication. She needs treatment.

She’s honest that she’s addicted to crack.

Medical detox is mandatory before admission into almost any sort of rehab, psychiatric or transitional housing program.

Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton tells the I-TEAM law enforcement has very few options on where to take people like Tameka. That is because while detox is mandatory before admission to an outreach program, there is no free medical detox program or place to do so in all of Augusta-Richmond County.

“On benzos and alcohol, if you don’t have medical detox, you can actually die,” Clayton explains. “And for others, they may not die, but they will wish they were dead. Intense cravings. They’re just not going to be successful until they have a detox, and currently there is really no avenues for that here.”

We find Melbin asleep on the floor inside the old Sky City building downtown. He tells the I-TEAM he tried to get help two months ago. “I told them I came here to detox. They said we don’t do that anymore.”

University Hospital and Serenity are the only avenues here in Augusta where homeless can go to detox under indigent care. Tameka asks to go there.

It’s up to a physician to refer Tameka to a program which may or may not have an open bed by the end of detox.

We found if there is no medical detox, there is no rehab. No referral from a doctor also means no rehab. No open bed also equals no rehab option.

Three strikes and back out on the streets.

“They’re going to do something very temporary and not help their situation,” says Clayton. “And this is some of the frustrations we deal with.”

The I-TEAM found the data painting a picture of what is happening on Augusta’s streets with drugs, death and overdoses is cause for frustration.

We found overdose deaths have shot up 70 percent this year.

Early estimates show the homeless population has tripled in 2021.

The ITEAM also uncovered more than half of all inmates in the jail are mentally ill.

Clayton sees the cycle repeat itself over and over – firsthand.

“During the process, I don’t think we stick with them all the way we kind of get them to somebody and then forget about them. We got to have it like a case management (system) with them from the beginning and coordinating through. I think that’s the only way we’re going to be successful.”

Tameka’s future may very well depend on it, along with the futures of the many others we have met on the streets struggling to survive.

The Street Outreach Team completed its final big sweep of the county Thursday. The next step is to compile a list of needs and gaps in service. Meanwhile, the people they have reached on the streets are already on the path to housing. Tameka completed detox and is in a program now. Sunny, a woman we introduced you to last week with mental illness, now has a job.

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