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Areas homeless are out of sight but still among us
Study: More than half report disability, including mental illness
A homeless man sits on a couch Thursday afternoon among tents, coolers and other items underneath the Queen City Parkway bridge. The large open area under the bridge is home to many homeless people.

Jordan sits on an old armchair underneath the Queen City Parkway bridge, clinging to his faith in God to battle the waves of depression and fear and the urge to drink.

About a dozen people live under the overpass, including Jordan, 24. It’s just one of the homeless camps in and around Gainesville and Hall County.

It is a population not always visible to the average Gainesville resident; the homeless try to keep out of sight, but symptoms of mental illness can draw the attention of law enforcement, the court system and social welfare groups. Many homeless people cope with a disability that makes it hard to hold down a job or keep stable housing.

Department of Community Affairs 2011 statistics showed about 200 people in Hall were homeless. Some live in shelters, some are in jail and some sleep in wooded areas and under bridges.

Statewide, about 62,000 were homeless in 2011, according to the same report. A survey from the same time period and agency showed that slightly more than half of respondents reported a disability, including chronic medical conditions, mental illnesses and addictive diseases.

Jordan has physical and mental disabilities. He was born with arthrogryposis, a rare condition that causes stiff joints and abnormally formed muscles. He has lived with family until about a month ago and never worked. He’s currently estranged from them, he said.

He has completed two months of sobriety and attends therapy groups through Avita Community Partners, a public agency formed by the state legislature to help people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases.

“Without Christ, I would be nothing more than a feeble, decrepit man,” Jordan said. “That’s not what I am. I’m a disabled man. I have served my purpose. I have served Christ, and I’m on my way to better beginnings.”

Life under the bridge

Hundreds of people travel the Queen City Parkway everyday likely never realizing the world existing underneath the asphalt. This other world is accessed by a dirt path close to the bridge.

Directly under the overpass are several sleeping areas sectioned off by screens to keep out mosquitoes. Concrete stairs lead to an open area with more tents, some couches and chairs, and a wooden cross.

During the day, the camp is mostly empty except for a few people napping or hanging out.

Thursday afternoon a man calling himself “Superman” told visitors he was a businessman who moved to the camp after $1 million was stolen from his bank account.

Thomas Ramirez, director of Good News at Noon shelter, said he sees more people with mental illness. Good News is a faith-based ministry that provides 15 beds, plus more emergency cots, as well as groceries and meals to those in need.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the pressure of life or — I don’t know what it is, but I have seen more people being ill,” Ramirez said. “We try to seek some kind of program where they can get help because we only can do so much.”

Several other agencies and nonprofits offer help, but resources often are stretched thin and the number of beds don’t equal the demand. Some church groups help by going into homeless camps around the county, including the camp under the bridge, to give out food and other necessities. Some charities offer meals at their locations.

Another local resource that helps address mental illness and homelessness is available to those who have landed in the Hall County court system.

The Health, Empowerment, Linkage & Possibilities program was created in 2004 to divert people in the criminal justice system who commit crimes because of mental illness. It’s under the direction of Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin.

Sometimes homeless people have to stay in jail because they don’t have anywhere else to live, Gosselin said.

“It’s remained consistently a problem for us with a significant number of referrals that we have,” she said.” There just aren’t places for people to land.”

The program has graduated 89 people and works with defendants on their housing situations so most have secured a place to live by the time they graduate, said Denise McKinney, clinical coordinator for HELP.

Bipolar disorder is seen most frequently, along with major depression and psychotic disorder, McKinney said. About 15 percent of those entering the program were homeless at the time.

‘Not hopeless ... but full of pain’

Jordan hopes that working with Avita will help him find housing. However, some people are content with life on the streets.

An older woman, Marie, has lived at the camp for slightly more than three years. Now in her mid-50s, she moved under the bridge after her house was foreclosed on and she couldn’t find a job.

Marie looks put together, with painted pink fingernails and simple jewelry hanging around her neck and wrists.

She said she decided to enter the “homeless industry” as a “political advocate” after giving up her job search.

She has since turned her attention to making the underpass a more pleasant place to live by keeping the open area clean and counseling younger residents. She said she used to do sales and marketing in the hotel/motel industry and doesn’t have a mental illness.

Jordan isn’t as content. He dreams of making a life for himself. He wants to attend Lanier Technical College and learn to design websites.

His faith sustains him and motivates him to improve his life, Jordan said. There are so many prayers that rise up from the camp to heaven, including his. He prays for freedom from his disabilities and the obstacles he fights.

“Release from the life that I’ve been given, that’s what I pray for,” Jordan said. “This life that I’ve been given is not totally hopeless, man. But full of pain, I’ll tell you that much.”

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