The homeless camp beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville has flooded before. But this time seems worse than ever.
Steady rains in recent days have swamped the camp with 6 inches of standing water or more in most places, drowning tents, couches, personal belongings and even the base of a makeshift cross.
“The problem has progressed for a while,” said Carl, a man in his 50s who has lived in homeless camps in Gainesville off and on for 10 years. “This has been an ongoing deal for … about two years now. It’s not our fault.”
And the flooding foreshadows more to come this winter if the drainage problem isn’t remedied.
The National Weather Service is forecasting a strong El Niño climate pattern to emerge out of the Pacific Ocean and result in cooler, wetter weather in December, January and February for much of the Southeast.
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
Word had been leaking out that the homeless camp was in dire straits this week, and the worry was summed up in an email to The Times sent Tuesday afternoon: “The tents are now underwater. Homeless had to climb hillside, even road … Lots of help needed.”
This homeless camp lies in a natural drainage course along railroad tracks and adjacent to a poultry plant.
The water, however, typically flows right through after a rain. But apparent clogs in nearby wastewater pipes have backed things up for hundreds of feet.
It is unclear who exactly is responsible. City officials said they would look into it.
And Hall County Public Works Director Ken Rearden said, “The only crossing (we have) in that area is the box culvert under Industrial Boulevard below Pilgrim’s Pride. It was flowing fine during the heavy rains. All others are state or city.”
With trash and firewood floating on the stagnant waters, which reflected another gloomy sky and the promise of more rain Wednesday, Wendy Paradis worried about the health and safety of those who live here.
A former commander for the Disabled American Veterans, Paradis is a frequent visitor to the camp.
She said the unsanitary conditions include not just the current floodwaters, but also lack of access to clean water and bathroom facilities, and the fact that debris of all sorts has not been properly disposed of.
“I wouldn’t call it ideal,” Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said of the homeless camp’s location.
But there are obvious reasons why those living on the streets have called this place home.
First of all, the bridge provides immediate shelter. It’s also become a central location for local organizations and public safety agencies to keep track and tabs on those in need.
But, perhaps most importantly, the camp is located within walking distance of the Good News at Noon shelter, where free, hot meals are dished out daily.
It’s true that some individuals have purposely chosen their lot beneath the bridge, Carl said, because they don’t care for the rigors of work and paying bills, or prefer to drink the night away.
But for others, it’s simply a waypoint between homes, jobs and relationships. And there simply aren’t enough shelter beds or affordable housing options currently available in the city or Hall County.
“The homeless population across the nation is diverse and consists of those who are experiencing temporary episodes of financial collapse; those who are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, mental illness and/or addiction; and those who are choosing to live ‘off the grid,’ no matter how precarious the conditions,” Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, said.
Moss has been meeting with local agencies, shelters and businesses since July to identify gaps and overlaps in services for the homeless.
“The rising number of homeless people in the community has been on our radar for several months now,” she said.
Moss is also examining new national initiatives to support the homeless, such as Housing First models where individuals receive shelter as a foundational step to recovering from substance abuse and getting back into the workforce.
This model flips the typical paradigm — which promotes stipulations, such as sober living and steady work, on the homeless before they are eligible for housing assistance — on its head.
“Together with other public and nonprofit agencies, we will make progress,” Moss said.
Community Development Director Rusty Ligon agreed that all available resources are needed to properly address homelessness without resorting to a Band-Aid approach.
For example, another program showing signs of success calls for constructing tiny, cheap homes for the homeless, which are then located in designated areas with easy access to job training and substance abuse services.
In the meantime, Paradis said the best thing people can give is their time and attention. A little interaction and conversation goes a long way when the floodwaters rise.
“They’re human beings,” Paradis said. “Don’t judge people just by what they look like.”