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I-TEAM | ‘Broken to pieces’: Hurdles hinder push to help homeless

Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 7:24 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM uncovered a startling reality in our reporting on the exploding homeless population in Augusta: Richmond County Schools identified 920 homeless students last year during the 2020-2021 school year.

We also have the very first look at where homeless camps are being found and identified:

Augusta homelessness task force map
Augusta homelessness task force map(WRDW)

In just five days, Augusta’s homelessness task force identified 38 encampments and met nearly 200 homeless people on the streets.

The map shows many are downtown and on the North Augusta border.

This week, the street outreach team met to go over the findings from their five-day mission. We’ve been there with them and witnessed the systemic failures repeatedly. We’ve reported on their expansive work to find a solution for these men, women and children.

In a conference room turned war room, deputies, marshals, city and nonprofit workers gathered like generals at a mission debriefing.

“We know it’s broken. It’s broken to pieces. Nothing is working right now,” exclaimed Shawn Rhodes with the Richmond County Marshal’s Office.

MORE COVERAGE:

The enemy: systemic cracks and gaps in care swallowing men, women and children into the streets of Augusta.

Including people like “Sunny,” a mother and former kindergarten teacher the I-TEAM first introduced you to weeks ago.

“It was very obvious she had schizophrenia. She had multiple voices talking to her as we were trying to talk to her,” Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Danny Whitehead said.

People who are homeless in Augusta with special needs or challenges can qualify for emergency housing vouchers through the city. Hundreds are now housed in local motels, but only temporarily, like Sunny.

She became more like herself-again after agreeing to get help, but Whitehead recalls it didn’t come without a lot of work from the outreach team.

“She’s got on her medicine, she has found a job, she’s contacted her family, bettered her life ... but might be back on the streets in a few weeks,” Whitehead said.

The problem is that help ends in 90 days.

“She’s been told she would be given a two-week call before going back to the shelter,” Whitehead said. “What is the process or can be put in place for someone like her? She has done everything we have asked her, the program has asked her.”

Sunny got a part-time job, but only after the outreach team drove her to the doctor, lobbied for a housing voucher on her behalf and reached into their own pockets.

Rhodes recalls crisis team members even having to reach in their own pockets to pay for food for Sunny once she was in the motel.

Her case reflects yet another glaring gap in the system.

“What we have to remember is we take people over to a hotel for 90 days, we got to feed them because what’s going to happen? They’re going to panhandle or they’re going to commit a crime to get the money because they got to eat,” Rhodes said.

The I-TEAM obtained the results of a recent survey of incoming inmates at the Charles B. Webster Detention Center. The survey found 50 incoming inmates identified as homeless. We previously reported more than half of the total jail population suffers from a mental illness.

But most homeless people do not end up behind bars.

The outreach team surveyed nearly 200 homeless people and identified 38 encampments during the five-day mission. The largest concentration was downtown, within walking distance of the city’s only family shelter. More than 600 individuals received help at the Salvation Army’s shelter last year.

The I-TEAM found the largest population of homeless among our youngest.

Richmond County schools identified more than 900 students as homeless during the last school year.

“If we are going to identify the gaps, we need to have the solution,” Whitehead said.

The gaps in care became glaring after meeting people brave enough to tell us their story on how they became homeless. People we’ve introduced in our stories like Tameka, Belinda, Cherry, Eugene and so many others.

They’ve shared their struggles from mental health to aging out of foster care. For some, it was addiction and for others it was an overall lack of affordable housing in Augusta – and a lack of transportation to get medication, and treatment.

“Nobody is on the same page and some things are being forgotten,” Whitehead said, adding that Sunny “is one person and we got hundreds of people that need services.”

A strategic plan is beginning to form. For the boots on the ground, it’s a battle plan.

The outreach team will present their findings to the Augusta Commission to help shape a strategic plan to end homelessness in Augusta. Commissioners will ultimately have the final say with a vote.

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