I-TEAM | How well is grant program helping Augustans in crisis?

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 7:39 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -The I-TEAM is tracking the money spent in the pandemic on the homeless crisis in Augusta.

Our series of reports since November have shown the homeless population increased 150% in a matter of months in 2021. To address the problem, the Augusta Commission created a homeless task force to hit the streets and discover why more people than ever are now without shelter in Augusta-Richmond County.

Our reports have highlighted the bigger picture as to why: a lack of affordable housing, a lack of transportation to get to doctors and medicine, mental health, addiction, and people aging out of foster care with no support systems in place.

Senior I-TEAM investigative reporter Liz Owens has gone with the task force to meet the homeless for more than two months. She’s discovered a huge piece missing to this puzzle appears to be – oversight.

Oversight of the individuals identified as in need of services, such as case manager, and, perhaps oversight of the programs funding the aid as well.

Bethany Trap does the work of a crisis coordinator at the Marion Barnes Resource and Referral Center. Her actual job title is a program coordinator. She helped homeless women we’ve featured in our previous reports, Sunny the former kindergarten teacher and Cherry, the homeowner, both found living on the streets and suffering from mental health disorders.

Trap has helped to oversee the care of both women in the motel voucher program in Augusta. They qualified for shelter in local motels for up to 90 days. That three-month period ends soon.

There is no long-term plan to help either woman, each of whom has done what the program has asked of them. They are on their medication; they are seeking treatment; Sunny even reconnected with family and has job.

Trap says the fact the women could soon be back out on the streets because of the 90-day timeline weighs heavy on her.

“It’s been on my mind. It’s heartbreaking but I have seen it over and over and over again.”

It’s an issue Augusta former Commissioner Mary Davis first voiced concern over at the beginning of the program – in the spring of 2020 when COVID first shut everything down.

During a virtual commission meeting on April 14, 2020, she asked about the long-term plan to the proposed motel voucher housing program.

“What happens with those people being housed? How do you have that ending? That transition?”

“Whenever the shelter in place has ended they may be there another 2-4 weeks while we transition them to what I consider permanent housing “answered Hawthorne Welcher. He’s the director of housing and community development in Augusta. His office oversees the motel voucher program that’s been in place now for nearly two years.

The I-TEAM found the program works like this. The city contracts with nine hotels to give temporary emergency shelter to people when a homeless shelter is not an option ... that includes anyone who is sick, disabled or mentally ill.

The voucher program is only good for up to 90 days and the costs are covered by grant money.

The .U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has awarded more than 2.6 million dollars in ESG, formally known as Emergency Solutions Grants, to Augusta-Richmond County since 2020.

A federal government website states: “The purpose of the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) Program is to assist individuals and families quickly regain stability in permanent housing after experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness.”

The I-TEAM wanted to know the success rate.

We submitted an open records request to Welcher and his office to ask how many people were transferred from motels to permanent housing.

We asked last November, and nearly two months later, we still have not received a response.

But we did get a response from Gold Cross about another request. Records show a 1,700% increase in emergency medical calls to those 9 motels since the motel voucher program began. Gold Cross tells us most of the calls involve overdoses.

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

And 40% of the homeless in Augusta are mentally ill.

In December, we reported there is no free medical detox for indigent care in Augusta. But medical detox is mandatory before a person can enter rehab in Augusta.

Another issue a case manager could help with, transportation from the motels to get to therapy, doctors’ appointments and medication for the mentally ill or addicts in need of detox help.

Those aren’t the only problems we found.

“I know we want to protect the homeless and the mentally ill but this is what happens when you put them in that motel and set them free and they don’t have groceries? They go panhandle they get in trouble.” Explains Marshal Shawn Rhodes at the last meeting of the street outreach team that spent weeks on the ground surveying the problem firsthand to take to the Homeless Task Force.

Records we obtained from the Marshals’ Office show panhandling skyrocketed 317%. Most of the citations are within a two-mile radius of the voucher motels.

Liz Owens asks of Rhodes: “One thing I keep noticing from being out with y’all and in meetings, even though there is a small portion of case management from various agencies there is not someone who is in charge of everything. Someone who makes sure once they get in a motel this is how they’re going to get food...walk them through the process of getting a phone... filling out applications… how are they supposed to have successful without an individualized case management program?”

“That’s the missing puzzle piece.” Answers Rhodes.

Deputies and Marshals, members of the street outreach team - and not case managers- got Sunny to the doctor. They brought her groceries, clothing, and even a way to get to her new job.

Although she’s gotten a job and seeing a doctor, plus taking her medication, and following the program she could still be out on the streets next week.

It’s unfortunate but we have to refer them back to the shelter at that point.” Explains Trap who says her hands are tied under the current structure of the program. Describing it as a circular issue.

A circle, or a cycle, that is yet to be broken or fixed nearly two years in.

Next Thursday, the street outreach team will present all these gaps in care they found before the task force, which includes commissioner Jordan Johnson.

The full commission should hear a new strategic plan to vote on next month.

The official homeless count is happening this month which is required by HUD to qualify for funding.

So, we should know soon just how big the homeless population has grown to from the streets, to the motels and shelters.

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