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Editorial: Merely out of sight won't fix homeless problem
Communities must seek long-term help, not just run vagrants off
Gainesville Police on Monday plan to clear out a homeless encampment beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville on request from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Many in Gainesville are aware of the longtime homeless camp under the Queen City Parkway Bridge, a temporary haven of sorts for those who have nowhere else to go.

Over the years, local residents and nonprofits have provided food and other necessities for those who have settled there. A local ministry, Under the Bridge, formed to pool resources and address the need.

But in recent months, this erstwhile community has at times turned violent. The savage beating of one man under the bridge was chronicled in a Times story last Sunday. This incident was just one in a recent rash of such encounters creating a more tense atmosphere in the lean-to village. Many say the problems are caused not by people who live there but by those who visit in search of drugs and a “party,” stirring up trouble.

As a result, Gainesville Police plan a sweep of the camp Monday to move everyone out, as requested by the Department of Transportation, which owns the right of way. Police will put up signs and barricades and patrol the area to keep it clear.

Gainesville officials and police mostly have kept a hands-off approach to the camp, yet have no choice but to honor the DOT’s request. Everyone agrees this won’t solve the problem; it will only send those people somewhere else, likely under bridges in other areas of town.

City officials are looking to rally nonprofits, shelters and missions that serve homeless needs to deal with the overflow from the camp. The hard part comes in figuring out what to do after that for these forgotten souls. Local resources are available but often maxed out, and most shelters won’t accept those with drug or alcohol problems.

Allowing the camp to fester in filth and violence doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests. The site is choked by waste and garbage, and subject to flooding. Area businesses have complained of its denizens loitering nearby. While the city chose not to harass them, looking the other way hasn’t made life easier for anyone there.

Gainesville is a giving community, and many want to reach out to these hard-luck folks. But gathering the necessary resources is a steep mountain to climb.

That effort goes beyond just money. Substance abuse, mental illness and poverty frequently are the root cause of vagrancy, and connecting the homeless with services beyond a bed and a meal is a challenge. Local governments, law enforcement, churches and nonprofit shelters can only treat the symptoms rather than lift the homeless permanently out of despair with the help they need most: counseling, jobs, and public and affordable housing.

In the meantime, where can someone plagued by these disorders find a place to settle until they can get their lives together, even if they aren’t bothering anyone or creating a visible eyesore?

For now, Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center Director Phillippa Lewis Moss is looking to create a “crisis intervention team” among local agencies to meet the need. “If we don’t do it right, it will repeat itself down the road,” Moss said, even as she acknowledges many won’t seek or accept help, making a fix even harder.

Gainesville has an estimated 200 or more homeless individuals. The state Department of Community Affairs lists Hall as one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015, nearly all of those in the county seat.

Veterans account for 10 percent of homeless individuals in Georgia, according to the DCA’s estimate last year, up from 7 percent in 2013. Little is sadder than seeing those who served their country and who came back physically and psychologically broken remain unable to return to productive lives.

Some cities in Hall and elsewhere have dealt with this problem by banning homeless campsites. As always, it simply moves the problem from one town to another, and scattering them makes it harder for agencies to find them and provide help.

There are some options to consider. Georgia Works! is program model local officials recently have spent time reviewing. It’s a privately funded transitional housing and workforce training program for homeless men in Atlanta that is supported by business sponsorships.

A local program that helps families out of homelessness is Family Promise. The nonprofit, joined by area churches, works with three families at a time to connect them with services that can get them back on their feet.

A nationwide program with some success is Housing First, which puts those who are homeless, for whatever reason, into permanent housing without restrictions. The theory is that once someone has a decent shelter, he or she is more able to seek help for their various problems, followed by a job and a true escape from the homeless lifestyle.

These programs take a strong government commitment and considerable resources, but the results have been positive for communities who have adopted these models. And in the long run, easing more people into productive, independent lives will be less costly to the rest of us than funding short-term fixes.

Without such solutions, those pushed from under the bridge will end up somewhere. Clearing the camp may remove its residents and visitors for awhile, but they will trickle back over time. Rest assured, they’ll will bring the same problems with them. Out of sight won’t put them out of mind.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas. 

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