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Connecting homeless to help a challenge ahead of deadline to leave encampment
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Monday marks the beginning of the final week of the homeless camp beneath Queen City Bridge. The homeless have been given until Friday to vacate the area beneath the Queen City Bridge, at which time signs and barricades will be placed to keep them from returning. - photo by Erin O. Smith

The goodwill of local nonprofits, shelters and missions may be up to the task of supporting the area’s homeless, but meeting the need on the street’s terms is a challenge bereft with starts and stops.

Little has changed in the two weeks since Gainesville law enforcement gave notice of its intention to clear the homeless encampment beneath the Queen City Bridge.

Friday is the public deadline for a dozen or more men and women living under the bridge to vacate.

Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center who has spearheaded an effort to coordinate substance abuse, mental health counseling and housing services with local providers, said intake preparations were made last week for three individuals who never showed for appointments.

“We’re trying something new,” she said. “I don’t have a map for how to do this.”

The bind service providers are in is evident.

Some who live beneath the overpass simply don’t want to leave.

“This is not something I can force people to do,” Moss said about getting individuals into treatment.

Jerry Deyton, pastor and founder of The Way ministry in Gainesville that serves as a day center for local homeless, said “good faith” efforts have been made, but the problems at the encampment persist — or even grow worse.

The camp shows that domestic violence exists outside the home, too, while alcohol and other drugs often fuel conflicts.

“The choice is theirs,” Deyton said, adding that there’s only so much that can be done given the constraints of willingness and resources.

Meeting the needs of those who desire assistance can feel like an intractable struggle given that shelter space is limited locally, coordination is lacking in many respects, public resources are stretched thin and ministries are trying to keep up with a growing demographic.

Hall is just one of 10 counties in Georgia to experience a more than 50 percent rise in the number of unsheltered homeless between 2013 and 2015, according to data from the state Department of Community Affairs.

It’s a big responsibility, with costs for taxpayers in the way of health care and incarceration spending.

“Somebody’s going to have to be strong enough to do it,” Deyton said about the need for investments in additional shelter space. He has pushed for additional assistance from the city to no avail.

The Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson, founder of the Veterans & Community Outreach Foundation, has been a regular visitor to the encampment, and his belief in a bottom-up approach to serving these homeless is growing stronger.

“You can put something together if you want to,” he said.

What’s next?

Law enforcement officials have said signs and barricades will be placed to keep the homeless from returning.

The city’s decision to close the camp was prompted by a recent request from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owns the right of way.

The GDOT is citing a criminal trespassing law as justification for removing the homeless.

But this gravel pit under one of Gainesville's busiest gateway thoroughfares is in many ways the epicenter of the area’s homeless population.

It’s a place that draws others on the street that might be looking for companionship and perhaps a party.

There are several smaller pockets of homeless camped in the nearby woods or along an adjacent railroad track.

Those living beneath the bridge said they would likely settle nearby, including where the first major “tent city” was located. County marshals have previously swept it.

The prospect that these homeless might simply relocate, and bring with them the bonds and cracks that exist in their living conditions, is high and could make tracking them and providing assistance even more difficult, according to Johnson and other outreach providers.

The coming sweep of the encampment nags like a scab the homeless are trying not to itch.

The palpable sense of resignation and uncertainty, however, is belied by the normalcy this itinerant life creates.

And so the large wooden cross, dressed in rosary with a written prayer hooked on, still stands beaten by the weather and shaded by the overpass.

The couches, tables and tents remain unmoved. Trash continues to gather. Talk never ceases to ring off the bridges’ pillars.

On Sunday, life went on mostly as usual there save for the interruption of a few new visitors.
Their presence crested a wave of outreach that has come from the community since word of the encampment’s pending fate was announced.

CJ Clarke IV, the youth minister at Saint Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville, said his group of seven or eight teenagers had come for their first visit to the encampment on Sunday to learn and live the experience of Christ’s teachings.

“I didn’t know about this” until recently, he said. “We always think that stuff like this happens somewhere else. And it’s right underneath our own nose and we don’t do anything about it. We’ve got to help out our own community.”

The teenagers engaged with the homeless men and women present in the mid-afternoon, passing out sandwiches, toiletries and other basics while sharing in prayer and conversation.

“I don’t want God to be a concept,” Clarke said about the motivation for his youth group. “It’s always about that encounter with Jesus. I want it to be something real that they can experience.”

Moss said she is focused on the end result and that city officials, nonprofits and volunteers remain engaged now and going forward.

She said she understands that “you can’t expect someone in darkness to walk alone into the light,” and that she remains personally and professionally motivated by the outpouring of compassion the community has shown in recent weeks after witnessing “the conditions took their breath away.”

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