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Gainesville homeless describe danger in streets
September slaying brings focus to everyday problem
Thomas Ramirez, director of Good News at Noon shelter, talks Friday about violence in the homeless community in Hall County.

Jackie Bertrim has slept with a knife under her pillow, afraid another homeless person living under the bridge would assault her.

“I spent two nights under that bridge and I’ll never do it again,” she said. “I don’t care if I’m ever homeless again. I’ll sleep out here on a bench before I sleep under there. It’s not a pretty sight under there. It’s not a pretty sight to be homeless out here on the street anyway.”

Bertrim, who experienced homelessness for six weeks, said a homeless person never knows if he or she will wake up the next morning.

For Good News at Noon shelter director Thomas Ramirez, the violence has plagued some coming for comfort at the Davis Street center.

“They come in with beatings and black eyes,” Ramirez said.

On Sept. 23, David William Keener, 50, of Gainesville, was indicted on charges of felony murder, aggravated assault and aggravated battery. Keener, who was living in the area near Atlanta Highway and Pearl Nix Parkway, is accused of slamming another homeless man Randall Huling, 51, into a guardrail. The attack caused severe brain damage and ultimately Huling’s death, according to the indictment.

In addition to the murder charge, Keener allegedly assaulted two other homeless men in Gainesville in the past two years.

Paula Helton Charles said she spoke to Gainesville detectives last week regarding Keener, known by an alias of “Super Dave.”

Charles said the violence is perplexing.

“There’s something different between hurting my feelings and giving someone a black eye,” she said.

When a person comes into Good News at Noon for help, Ramirez said he doesn’t try to pry into their lives.

“I don’t get very involved in their personal business, because sometimes they don’t want to say too much,” Ramirez said. “My job is to help them heal their wounds, feed them, give them clothes and help them with what they need.”

Ramirez, who himself used to be homeless, can empathize with the fear and struggles people in the shelter face daily.

“When I was sleeping in my car ... I was sleeping with a baseball bat by my side,” he said.

In the busier city of Atlanta, James Stallings saw more of the violence in the homeless community there than in Gainesville. The warning signs of substance abuse is what leads to danger.

“You see trouble when you see somebody drinking or something like that, so that’s the kind of environment you want to try and stay away from,” Stallings said.

When living under the bridge, other homeless people would gather to use drugs, leading to fights after the supply ran out, Bertrim said. Sexual assault against women and theft was prevalent, which made Bertrim leave for her own security.

Bertrim said the fear of reciprocity kept her from filing police reports.

“If (other homeless people) found out who did it, then they would kill me. You’ve got to watch your back here in Hall County,” Bertrim said.

Because alcohol and drug use is prohibited at Good News at Noon, some homeless people, Ramirez said, turn down the help at the faith-based center because of the restrictions.

“You can go to the most expensive rehab, but you’ll waste all your money, because the change has to be inside, and only God can reach your heart. Only God can save your soul,” Ramirez said.

Bertrim, who is no longer homeless, said she just needed a little bit of time to get back on her feet after losing her job. The drive to rebound is paramount when a person meets such dire circumstances, she said.

“You’ve got to choose to get yourself better,” Bertrim said.

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