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I-TEAM | Community crisis in need of community response

Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 6:30 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM helped to uncover barriers that are keeping people from accessing services within the system of homeless nonprofits and government agencies designed to address the skyrocketing population spilling out onto Augusta’s streets, but it is falling short.

“None of us on this team are homeless experts.” The non-experts in the members of the homeless street outreach team: marshals, deputies, a pastor, and a reporter-- among others.

The homeless experts: nonprofits like the Salvation Army.

It’s difficult to acknowledge imperfections within a system or agency, and The Salvation Army is so far the only agency, non-government, and government, within Augusta’s homeless system to ask publicly how they can improve. After our debriefing on what we found hitting the streets since October, they have already made several changes that will improve the services they provide.

The outreach team-shared eyewitness accounts to Salvation Army stakeholders three weeks before they will share the same findings before commissioners. The commission will then vote on a comprehensive plan to better aid Augusta’s growing homeless population.

The ITEAM’s Liz Owens has been investigating the homeless crisis for more than six months now and shared her findings at the meeting too.

Local and state government, combined with dozens of non-profits together, make up a system of resources for people at risk of homelessness or already homeless in Augusta. Despite all the programs and funding, we all found people unable to access help within the system, at least not until we got involved.

THE LIEUTENANT: Lt. Danny Whitehead, Richmond County Sheriff’s Office

A veteran in field operations but a rookie to the system of getting help for the mentally ill woman he found in a field off Skinner Mill Road.

A woman named Ashley that Lt. Whitehead now calls a friend. We called her sunny at the time to protect her identity, but now she’s ready to come forward.

Ashley was cold and wet when Lt. Whitehead came back.

“I returned with a blanket. It was my peace offering to Ashley.”

But she was disconnected from reality when she was found. Lt. Whitehead explained how far she’d fallen from the previous life she had known.

“Ashley graduated from Augusta State. Ashley was a teacher in Columbia County. Ashley is a mother. Ashley, because of her mental health, schizophrenia had robbed her of her family her job. She hadn’t spoken to her son in six months.”

A state hospital out of the area released Ashley, bussed her back to Augusta, and left her to figure it out all alone. The lieutenant and other team members did what a case manager should have done. They got her to a local doctor then into a motel, and reunited with her family.

“I was there when Ashley talked to her son for the first time in six months. She cried, I cried. I could hear her son cry.”

Today, Ashley has her family, a job, and housing again. She got up to speak before the Salvation Army about the extra assistance from Lt. Whitehead and the outreach team that turned her life around.

“They made me feel like I was not alone they brought me food clothes, and company to the hotel their attitude encouraged me to find a job and place to live. With your involvement. I would like to assist others in similar situations.”

THE PASTOR: Luke Niday, Outreach Pastor, First Presbyterian Church

Luke Niday is a man of faith not a man of the homeless system.

“On December 8th, I met a friend I call ‘Twin’. He had been homeless in the system for two years. He stayed at the Salvation Army a lot of night and over that time Twin tried to get help.”

The pastor found Twin under a tree.

“I went to so many agencies and got so many turned down offers.”

Twin says the never-ending cycle of closed doors of subsidized housing only opened with the Pastor by his side.

“I am not homeless no more.” Twin proudly tells the crowd. “I got an apartment an ID birth certificate can goods all that.”

THE MARSHAL: Shawn Rhodes, Richmond County Marshal’s Office

Shawn Rhodes knows the streets, not the system to get people off the streets.

“We are going to talk about sweet Cherry. We are not supposed to get emotionally involved, but it is hard not to do that.”

We were there when the team found Cherry in the parking lot of Sacred Heart.

“Bill Gates knows who I am former president trump knows who I am if you call and ask him, they will confirm it. I just want to go home to my house.”

We found Cherry has a home in North Augusta, but she is imprisoned to live on the streets not by her finances - but by her mind.

Rhodes explained the challenges of adults with debilitating mental health struggles. “There is only one option for Cherry other than the streets: guardianship and conservatorship through Probate Court, so that’s what we did.”

The Marshal did what a caseworker with the state failed to do – and got Cherry off the streets and got her help.

“She is happy her mind is clear, and we suspect Cherry will be back in her home like she deserves to be.”

THE REPORTER: Liz Owens, News12′s I-TEAM

Owens investigates societal issues- she is not a social worker.

“A year ago, Alessia was not in the situation she is in right now,” Liz explained to the Salvation Army leadership.

Alessia had a job and an apartment, but a domestic violence situation and high-risk pregnancy left her and her children in a broken-down SUV.

I met her on a cold January day with snow on the way.

Alessia: “These are all the calls I made on Friday.”

Liz: “To who?”

Alessia: “All the agencies in Augusta…”

Liz: “So that’s too Salvation Army, Marion…”

Alessia: “Barnes, Bright House Family Promise, Safe Homes, and a lot of others.”

Liz: “And nobody…”

Alessia: “Reached back out.”

Liz then told the Salvation Army stakeholders what she had to do to help Alessia and her four children, including a one-month-old infant.

“I made calls to people I know in the task force, and I walked her into the shelter a couple of hours later. I made more calls when she needed car seats to receive a cab voucher to get her son to school. Is there not someone who can step up and say ‘oh hey you need car seats’? We have a lot of nonprofits in town.”

Alessia kept trying to help herself and her children and kept meeting dead ends on her own.

Liz: “Have you heard anything from Marion Barnes?”

Alessia: “No, I emailed them and contacted them yesterday.”

Liz: “Still nothing?”

Alessia: “No.”

And again when she needed help filing for childcare assistance. Liz posed this question about her findings.

“I can’t help but think that 20 days later, that kid would have missed less school (and be) less behind, and she might be further up the waitlist because there is a long waitlist if that had been done on day one or day two.”

Liz told Alessia to put her name on the waitlist for Family Promise, a local nonprofit that assists families with housing, childcare, and employment.

Three weeks later, this (past) Wednesday she sent Liz the good news via text.

“Long story short- I’ll be there next Monday or Tuesday...We’ll be staying in one of their homes...I’m so grateful & glad I met you.”

“Guys, this is the cycle - but I want to tell you that you can break the cycle.”

Liz then shared her family’s struggles with the entire audience. “My dad was homeless as a kid. He grew up in poverty. He spent time in foster care. I grew up one domino away from homelessness as a child, and when dad lost his job, we became homeless. It took a community to help us, and I know this community can help the families here in Augusta.”

Four people were freed from the revolving door of dead ends not by people within the homeless system but members of this community.

“We need more of me off the street.” Pleads Twin in the meeting.

“We can do this, but it will take relationships. Know people don’t just know statistics- know the person,” pleaded Twin’s mentor, Pastor Niday.

Where do we go from here? The Salvation Army has already implemented changes to make access easier to the shelter. They are also in the process of developing a plan for a day shelter. The Richmond County School Board voted this week to allocate funds for a van to transport homeless students to school.

Later this month, commissioners will vote on a strategic plan to address housing and homelessness.

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