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Silver lining emerges for homeless as some take advantage of shelters, programs
A message is scribbled in chalk across a beam beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville where a longtime homeless encampment is being cleared at the request of the Georgia Department of Transportation. - photo by Josh Silavent

Help for the homeless living beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville has finally gained traction nearly three weeks after city officials and local law enforcement announced plans to sweep and close the encampment.

“We have had a turnaround,” said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center.

Seven individuals were transported directly to local shelters this week, several of which entered mental health or substance abuse programs, according to Moss.

It may not be the Promised Land, but it’s promising nonetheless.

“It’s heartwarming to see people come to terms with their condition and to avail themselves of assistance,” said Moss, who spearheaded an effort with local nonprofits and missions to conduct outreach at the camp. “It’s my hope that they will take this opportunity to turn their lives around and rejoin the community in a powerful way.”

The departure of these homeless has left the camp as quiet as ever. A few long-timers remain, some resigned to the camp’s closing and others still holding fast to its splintering threads.

They’ve got an advocate in the Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson, who said the homeless are like a family, with all its typical infighting and love. He said he’d stand tall for the homeless if they are pushed to leave before they are ready.

A few homeless men have indicated that they will simply relocate to another overpass, along the railroad tracks or in the adjacent woods where a large encampment once existed before it was cleared.

That fact alone calls into question the ability of police and city officials to enforce the request from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owns the right-of-way, to remove everyone from under the bridge or keep them from coming back in the future.

Gainesville police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said the No. 1 priority is to provide resources to the homeless and assist in the transition away from the bridge.

Moss said she intends to visit the bridge again next week, but time is running short.

Police officials had given a Friday deadline for the homeless to vacate, but there was no enforcement made this week to clear the camp.

Moss said city officials want to give providers “time to do their work.”

Holbrook said he understands that some individuals wish to stay.

It is unclear, however, what role the GDOT will play in removing tents, couches and personal belongings when they day comes to erect barricades and “no trespassing” signs.

“I’m going down with the ship,’ said Leon Hines, a man in his 60s who has called the bridge home for years.

In the meantime, the challenge of serving the homeless continues.

Moss coordinated a small “crisis group” to intervene in all ways, from storing their belongings to providing transport to local clinics and transitional housing.

Even the stray cats and dogs that became pets at the camp are being cared for when possible.

Leslie and Kim hope their opportunity is coming.

The two women said getting into a shelter on their own has been next to impossible.

There are inherent restrictions local shelters have. For example, medical conditions can be cause to get turned away. Drug and alcohol use is not permitted. And strict curfews mean no working the nightshift.

“The shelters will not accepted anyone that is in a crisis state,” Moss said.

Moreover, one slip-up means you’re not likely to be invited back.

This leaves some of the most vulnerable and chronically homeless individuals to the streets.

“Why do I have to be a junkie to get a place?” said Leslie, a homeless woman who lives at a smaller camp close to the bridge.

Kim said she lives in her car. She’s hoping to find an apartment and get back on the job.

“It’s difficult to hold down work when you’re homeless,” she said.

When Melvin Brown showed up to the bridge, it was clear he had seen enough.

He’s been visiting for about two and a half years, dropping off basic supplies and extending a word of encouragement to the homeless here.

But after the camp was flooded twice last year, and with the cold winter months returning now, Brown said it’s time to see a better life for those living there.

“In my opinion, they been down here long enough,” he said. “Just don’t get stuck down here.”

New volunteers have stepped up in recent weeks, including church groups, businesses and individuals with a heart to serve.

It’s certainly been a wakeup call for local resident Becky Prince Burnette.

Hall is just one of 10 counties in Georgia to experience a more than 50 percent rise in the number of unsheltered homeless between 2013 and 2015, according to data from the state Department of Community Affairs.

“My blood just started boiling,” Burnette said about learning of the homeless under the bridge. “It surprised even me how upset I got.”

Burnette said she wants to be part of the growing outreach for area homeless and visited the camp this week for starters.

“Understanding that this is what people call home, it’s frightening,” she said.