Several Gainesville residents who struggled with their own drug addiction and alcohol problems want to help the city's homeless get back on their feet.
Under the Bridge Ministries, created by 12 people who met in December to talk about homelessness, has identified at least 70 homeless people in six sites around Gainesville.
The ultimate goal is to build a new homeless shelter with a kitchen, thrift store and separate wings for 25 women, 25 men, 10 battered women and their children and five families. But there's a lot of work to do.
"We were given some space in the Blue Ridge Shopping Center last Wednesday, and we started a food pantry, clothing bank and 24-hour outreach ministry," said Jason Ladd, who is heading up the project. "A lot of people have opened their eyes lately to the homeless and poor situation here in Gainesville."
Last March, Ladd began taking food to the group under Queen City Parkway bridge. The more he talked to people, the more homeless sites he found with makeshift shelters erected under bridges, behind shopping centers or in the woods.
"I was getting introduced to another tent city and another tent city," he said. "Three weeks ago, we set up food and music at a trailer park and just started walking and knocking on doors. A lady with three kids had no power, no food, no transportation and nobody to love on her. That's the door we needed to knock on."
The group has helped six people enroll in rehabilitation programs, find stable housing or go back to their families' homes. Though they're building connections with existing homeless shelters and a handful of churches, Ladd and the others want to create a permanent place to help even more people.
"There are seven shelters here in Gainesville, but we don't even want to be called a shelter. We want to be a work program because we want to help people move past this," Ladd said. "We have a 15-passenger van from Lanier Hills Baptist Church, and we help them get to doctors' appointments, haircuts and job interviews."
They hope to make serious strides by March 29, when state officials said they plan to clear the area under Queen City bridge. Ladd declined to identify the officials who oversee the bridge area.
"They've threatened a lot of times in the past to run everybody out, and they have a few times, but everybody comes back," he said. "In December, they told us March 29 the chains are going up, and that would be it. Since we've been stirring up such a mess about it, they're backing off but might still do it."
Ladd and group member Tommy Harris are presenting one-year, five-year and 20-year plans to several local churches this week to find some financial support.
"I was born in Gillsville and have lived here just about all my life, and you can see how the economy has hurt everybody," Harris said. "We're helping two people with college degrees, and then others have intentionally given up and done something to get in jail. It's really cold out there."
The group also shelters some people in camper trailers in their backyards.
"We're not asking the city or state for anything except the authority to create a shelter and get these people out," Harris said. "This is larger than a handful of people; it really is. We have people on the ground running and running and helping, but we also have full-time jobs."
In addition to the shelter, Under the Bridge wants to build a website, fund Bibles in English and Spanish and find volunteers who will cut hair, cook soup, work the thrift store and help with addiction recovery.
"People don't understand that the economy has pushed down the working class lower and lower," Harris said. "We've talked to so many people where the kids go to school and get breakfast and lunch and then come home to no supper. The parents are working, but the rent is ridiculous, and by the time they pay for the necessities, there's nothing left."