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Work remains to support local homeless one year after camp’s closing
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Jerry Deyton, left, pastor and operator of a day center for the homeless in Gainesville called The Way, speaks with Doug Hanson, advocate for chronically homeless men. - photo by Joshua Silavent

A lot can change in one year. A lot can remain the same, too.

Since the closing of a homeless encampment beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville last October, community advocates, nonprofit leaders and city officials said they have made slow, steady progress to address the larger social, cultural and economic conditions that contribute to homelessness.

It’s the kind of incremental progress that can leave them both frustrated and motivated, and includes everything from a push for new affordable housing development to designs for new transitional housing, mental health and substance abuse services.

“There were some well-meaning organizations who attempted to help people under the bridge for many years without success,” said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center. “But many of these efforts, which sought to make the camp more comfortable, just delayed the inevitable.”

Moss led an effort to unite service providers with the homeless at the camp before it was closed but ran into emotional and physical walls right away.

“Not everyone who needs help accepts help the first time around,” Moss said. “Those who resisted had many excuses, but I think it came down to fear. To outsiders, the camp was seen as a deplorable place to live. But to those who lived there, the camp was a home, a place of refuge from a world that didn’t seem to fit them.”

Here are videos from the closing of the homeless encampment one year ago and how it looks today.

Doug Hanson, an activist who works with local churches, businesses, government and nonprofits to support homeless men, has seen collaboration grow in the last 12 months.

“When I see their lives transformed, it motivates me to press on,” Hanson said.

But he added that it’s sometimes one step forward, two steps back for someone trying to get off the streets.

Still, several homeless individuals have changed their lives in positive ways that few could have imagined one year ago.

The Queen City encampment, which had existed in some form since at least the 1990s, was closed at the behest of the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owns the right of way beneath the overpass.

The DOT razed the camp, clearing brush, demolishing tents and makeshift living structures, removing crosses stuck in the ground and the food wrappers, water bottles and other trash littered around them.

Workers tore up the concrete steps that had been poured years ago that sloped from the bridge to the ground some 100 feet or so beneath. And new railroad track has now been laid at the site.

Pastor Jerry Deyton, who opened a day center called The Way in 2014 to serve the homeless around Gainesville’s industrial area, said the camp had become violent and a haven for illicit drug use.

Closing it brought attention to the problem of homelessness and helped galvanize the community to support long-term solutions, he added, with news media attention from Hall County to Atlanta helping deliver him more volunteers and donations.

“It’s tough love,” Deyton said. “And it has opened people’s eyes.”

There are still a few ghostly remains under the bridge — a sleeping bag seen draped in one corner on a recent visit and a few personal items tossed about, as well. And the colorful block letters pasted to the overpass siding spelling out “render what’s due” are still visible.

Those are the words of Marie, who moved into a permanent home when the camp was closed thanks to the assistance of Avita Community Partners, a local mental health service provider.

For Vickie Barber, the closing of the camp brought her the kindness of friends and acquaintances.

“At first I was stressed out about where I was going to go, but then a friend stepped up,” Barber said. “There was a lot of people who were angry” about the bridge closing.

Barber was gone by the time the bulldozers moved in and has mostly lived with friends over the last year. But for a few brief spurts, she found herself on the streets again.

“It’s a good feeling” to have shelter, Barber said. “Especially being a woman on the streets, it can be very scary.”

Other long-timers moved in with family or friends. Some remain living in whatever undisturbed patch of woods they can find, typically around local plants and mills where some occasionally work morning, afternoon or night shifts.

And some have died.

“Some have moved around and some have moved on,” Deyton said.

A lot of the usual faces from the bridge encampment regularly float in and out of The Way.

Sometimes they go missing for weeks, Deyton said, doing stints in jail or benders on hard drugs. Other times they move around trying to stay one step ahead of the law and a crackdown on a new encampment.

That happened with Mark, who left the Queen City camp and moved to a forested spot between a gas station and Black and Cooley drives before being told to leave in the spring.

Jose, meanwhile, was encouraged to enroll in a 90-day work program at The Salvation Army shelter. It took a few months, but that’s where he eventually sobered up and got a job at a local chicken plant. He graduated from the program this fall and moved into a home of his own.

For Rosa Hightower, who coordinates shelter enrollment and oversight at The Salvation Army, Jose became a model resident who could teach new arrivals how to survive the demands of the program.

It’s this kind of immersion with the homeless that helps build trust, Hanson said. And that’s the first step in the path to success.

Hanson was given the street name “Dougie Fresh” this year by Lee Early, a once-homeless man who is now also off the streets. It was a sign of the kinship he has developed with so many homeless men.

There were 107 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals counted in Hall County during a survey in January.

These numbers do not account for those living in hotels or in their cars, however.

The Times profiled two such families in recent stories: 

Colombian family, baby girl call motel their home 

Father struggles when unable to provide for family

Advocates said reaching them will require an understanding of the bonds that connect us all.

“One year later, I realize that I underestimated the importance and the pull of the social connections created in the camp,” Moss said. “Individuals who found housing still valued and depended on the relationships they had formed.”

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