Tensions ran high as Gainesville Police moved Monday afternoon to begin clearing a homeless encampment beneath the Queen City Bridge.
“They’re not taking my family from me,” Leon Hines, perhaps the longest resident of the encampment, said while vowing to fight the city’s plans. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The homeless have been given until Oct. 21 to vacate, at which time signs and barricades will be placed to keep them 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.
Gainesville officials said they are working with local nonprofits, shelters and missions to coordinate the sweep and offer mental health, substance abuse and housing services.
“What I’m seeing here today is something I’ve been seeing coming for a long time,” Jerry Deyton, pastor and founder of The Way homeless ministry in Gainesville, said. “It’s got to be confronted. It’s got to be dealt with. At least try.”
Deyton said reports of violence, drug abuse and property destruction at the encampment need to end.
Richard Bell, founder of Feed the Need Ministry in Hall County, said he cautiously supports the decision to sweep the camp.
“I think it can be a good idea because maybe it can help some of the homeless, especially the ones able to work, realize that maybe it’s time to get a job,” Bell said.
But he also wants assurances the homeless will be given a safe place to relocate.
Bell said he’s concerned the homeless will return to the bridge, squat in abandoned homes or nearby storage units or even intentionally break the law so they can call jail home during the cold winter months.
Gainesville officials and community leaders acknowledge some of these homeless are likely to move to another location, perhaps even to several other bridges nearby.
“I can’t tell them to go (anywhere) because that might be somebody’s property,” Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said.
Police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said law enforcement would continue to visit the encampment over the next few weeks to educate the homeless about what services are available to them and connect them with local providers.
And a group of nonprofits and community leaders plan to visit the encampment again today.
Holbrook said the homeless represent a transient population and many have family living outside the community, adding that police and nonprofits will help the homeless contact family and even provide transportation for them to reconnect.
“We sympathize with them,” he added.
One homeless woman who asked to remain anonymous said she welcomed the opportunity to receive assistance.
“I want to get out of here,” she said. “In my mind this is a blessing.”
But she’s also skeptical about just how much the homeless can be helped by local service providers.
For example, there are waiting lists at some shelters. The wait at My Sister’s Place, a local shelter for women and children, is about four weeks. And substance abuse and mental health problems can make some homeless ineligible for services.
Demetric Newberry, who has lived at the bridge on and off for a few years, said he’s doing his best to find a job and permanent place to stay, adding that he’ll likely wind up sleeping at a friend’s house while the search continues.
In the meantime, however, he said police “need to leave us alone.”
Marie, who had built herself a makeshift home under the bridge with walls and a locking door, said she’ll deal with the closing of the camp like she deals with all the other difficulties life throws her way: in stride.
“I’m not gonna chain myself in,” she said.
The Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson of Antioch Baptist Church in Gainesville said he was surprised that more nonprofit providers and community leaders were not present Monday. Moreover, no City Council members or representatives from the GDOT were on hand.
This has led to poor communication and coordination, Johnson said.
“Right now, this is their home, and we’re invaders,” he said. “These people been here a long time. We can’t force them out.”
Holding a printed paper that read “Homeless Lives Matter,” Johnson said he intends to advocate and support these homeless residents over the next several weeks.
Hall is one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015.
“It ain’t always the ones here that’s causing the trouble,” Johnson said, but rather outside individuals wanting to come party. “We don’t want to drive a wedge between anybody. We want the whole community to come together to help the homeless.”