The grounds are lined with trash rather than flowers. No birds sing from shaking limbs along the gravel road entrance. And the stray cats act more like house pets.
But what’s long been normal under the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville, where the city’s largest homeless encampment is located, has become too much for some residents and ministries to bear this year.
“We have taken water, clothes and medical supplies to them in person, but we feel it’s now too dangerous to return,” one volunteer said.
It’s the violence that has turned them off: Domestic disputes and beatings, and drug-fueled conflicts.
And that’s where Daniel Smith’s story begins.
In August, he was stomped and pummeled nearly to death. Witnesses who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity described a brutal beating with sticks and kicks.
“They didn’t have to do him like that,” one said.
Smith, 33, was at the encampment with two young women. He said he was looking for an estranged stepsister who had an upcoming court date and that he regularly helped out the homeless there.
Witnesses said he may have been intoxicated and looking for drugs, something Smith denies.
Smith said a man named Necko Jackson, 38, made sexual advances on the young women. This offended Smith, and left him upset and angry, according to witnesses.
But here’s where the story muddies. There are conflicting accounts about who instigated the physical altercation.
Smith said he was attacked when he spoke up for the girls.
Leon Hines, 61, who along with Jackson was named as a suspect in Smith’s beating in a Gainesville police report obtained by The Times, said his involvement was a matter of self-defense.
But he does admit that violence has always been part and parcel with the homeless encampment.
Hines, who has long seen himself as a kind of father of the camp, set out to protect its image. He said the beating actually took place down the road.
Whatever the case, the end result is that Smith was left in a coma for nine days. Hines and Jackson reported no injuries.
“All the sudden I’m just fending them off,” Smith said. “Somebody was like, ‘Look out behind you’ ... and then it was lights out.”
He was dragged away and taken to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
Smith had part of his skull removed to stop the swelling and blood clotting on his brain, leaving his head looking like a deflated football.
It was widely believed among the homeless at the encampment that Smith had died.
“They never thought I’d live,” Smith said.
Today, Smith has stitches running in a horseshoe shape across his head. His left arm, which he used to block the swing of a stick, was shattered and he has yet to regain much feeling.
Smith’s wife said the changes in her husband have been drastic. He needs help dressing, bathing and eating.
“He can’t even pick up his own daughter right now,” she said.
Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said witnesses would not speak to investigators, which leaves the incident little more than “he said, he said” and difficult to prosecute.
While the investigation remains open, Martin said, it is being treated as a self-defense case.
The homeless encampment has long been a source of strain for local law enforcement. They are repeatedly called to nearby businesses to deal with loiterers.
And the numbers of hangers-on using hard drugs, those who do not live under the bridge but frequent the encampment looking for a party, has grown substantially over the last year.
The violence has followed suit. Another individual was severely beaten for allegedly using a racial slur. Then tents and mattresses were allegedly set on fire, leaving some without the shelter they call home.
Under the Bridge Ministries, a venerable religious charity in Gainesville, no longer takes teams of volunteers to the bridge to deliver services and spiritual healing because of the violence. Instead, its members have partnered with The Way ministry, located in the city’s industrial area, to conduct services at that mission.
One volunteer, however, who has ministered to the homeless here all summer long, said they would continue to do so if only because there are people still in need who have had nothing to do with the violence.