The campfire smoke blows through in gusts as eggs boil over an open flame. It’s the first meal of the day for the few homeless who live here, a hollow in the woods bordered by railroad tracks, a church and a residential neighborhood.
Three dogs bark from their pens to greet visitors at the camp, where clotheslines hang, a bucket stores recyclable aluminum cans and tents serve as homes.
There is a desk for writing and reading, full bookshelf and a couch for a bed inside one of these nylon shelters, evidence of a life not as far removed from normalcy as one might imagine.
“I don’t bother nobody,” said Amber McConnell. “Why can’t I just be left alone?”
The Hall County Marshal’s Office says McConnell, as well as those individuals at another camp on the opposite side of the tracks, are trespassing.
Marshals visited the camp last week to inform these homeless that they must vacate by Monday.
The clearing of a nearby larger encampment beneath the Queen City Bridge last month has had the predictable effect of pushing some homeless into these woods in the search for a place to settle.
And like a game of “whack-a-mole,” local law enforcement has prepared to stamp out these camps without the promise of alternative shelter.
For local advocates, the precedent has the chilling effect of criminalizing homelessness, much like ordinances passed last year in Oakwood and Flowery Branch that made it illegal to panhandle or sleep in public.
And on a practical level, dispersing these homeless once more could make it more difficult to track them and provide housing, substance abuse, mental health or other common services for those on the streets.
“We cleaned up the bridge,” said Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson of the Veterans and Community Outreach Foundation in Gainesville. “When are we going to help our homeless?”
Jimmy Adams, president of The Adams Companies who leases a business space at the old Gainesville mill, said he made a complaint recently to city officials about the presence of homeless at these wooded camps located a few hundred yards from his business. That complaint was then forwarded to the county Marshal’s Office because the property in question is located in county jurisdiction.
Adams said he is concerned about fires burning in the area, the potential for vandalism of company equipment and the prospect of his employees being harassed by the homeless.
Adams said he did not specifically request that the camps be cleared, but is supportive of the decision nonetheless.
After the Queen City Bridge was cleared, “Why wouldn’t they sweep other camps?” he asked rhetorically.
Adams, however, does not own the two properties where these newer camps are located. County officials told The Times the request came from officials with Milliken, but tax records show that company sold the land to a private individual earlier this year.
For years, local law enforcement acknowledged their reluctance to disperse and clear homeless camps, from under the bridge or elsewhere. They reasoned doing so might simply perpetuate the problem by forcing the homeless into new locations and driving them to the doorstep of the next neighborhood or business.
The camp beneath the bridge was decades old before it was swept. While one of these newer camps is actually a resettled location for area homeless that was briefly cleared about two years ago, law enforcement had not actively pursued enforcement of trespassing laws until recently.
Gainesville officials made a concerted effort to provide services to the homeless before removing them from the bridge in October. And some were able to get into mental health programs and receive housing.
There are new and renewed efforts to assist the homeless locally, from the launch of a poverty initiative by the Hall County chapter of the United Way to the extension of an Atlanta-based workforce training and transitional housing program to include five homeless men from Gainesville.
But for the many women on the streets like McConnell, who have already escaped a life of vice, drugs and domestic violence, resources are thin. And there is no indication that outreach and services are being provided during this latest homeless sweep.
Most shelters in the area are slated for men or women, not both. And they are often reserved for victims of domestic violence, and those with drug addiction and mental illness.
McConnell’s challenges include tendinitis and carpal tunnel, a disability that keeps her job prospects limited. A broken family life she is trying to repair deepens the struggle.
She said she relies on the grace of a friend for support.
“I’m not bothering anybody,” McConnell reiterated.
Other homeless at these camps said they are worried about being separated — from each other, from their pets, from the little slice of stability and safety they’ve managed to carve out in these woods.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” McConnell said.
Homeowners and renters who spoke with The Times shared mixed feelings about the presence of homeless in their backyard. But even those who wanted them gone still expressed concern for whether the homeless would receive care and assistance.
McConnell said she is counting on her faith to pull her through.
“Before I came here, God told me I would have to fight to stay,” she said.