By Kari L. Sands
Reporter’s Note: In researching and preparing to write this story, I learned of the difficulty faced sometimes when trying to reach out to people for help on such a large-scale issue. I, myself, found the city of Valdosta to be very helpful in addressing homelessness, but there were other entities such as local probation offices and actual homeless individuals whom were hesitant in giving any responses in this collaborative effort to solve a huge problem. I am unsure if the homeless individuals were uneasy about giving comments or having their names printed, but who better to help provide a solution to a dilemma than the people facing it?
Federal probation offices directed me to state probation, and those offices, despite the huge national cut in prisoner re-entry initiative programs, had no comments nor offered any direction as to who may be able to help on an issue that we all know exists.
Just last week, I attempted to do my part and pick up an elderly lady walking in one of our South Georgia torrential downpours as police and deputies and citizens flew by splashing more water on her. I was certain she was not the only person who did not have her own home or needed a ride in the rain that day, but simply the only person brave enough to battle the rain because she had a medical appointment, connecting homelessness to our city’s need for a transit system, which is currently in the works.
This piece just scratches the surface on the many issues that homeless face in our community and our country, but that’s where every great movement must begin.
VALDOSTA — Webster’s Dictionary lists 24 definitions of home; the first being “a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.” Thus, homeless is defined as without a home or lacking permanent housing.
Jane Osborn, Associate Director of 211 of South Central Georgia, strives to remind the city of Valdosta, its citizens, and surrounding communities that “homeless” does not simply define people living under bridges and in alleys but also people who do not have an adequate nighttime residence or permanent living situation; this even includes multiple families living at one family member’s home.
On Feb. 7 during the Valdosta City Council regular session meeting, Jane Osborn addressed council about the growing number of homeless individuals and their increasing
issues. Osborn reminded Council during the meeting that not all inhabitants of Valdosta enjoy the prosperity of the city mentioned during the State of the City address.
Osborn said that she addressed the council as a concerned representative of the South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness about the continuing issues of people lacking adequate health care, affordable housing, and sufficient food.
“If the city is so prosperous, let the city get involved with the homeless. In Albany, the homeless coalition is a part of the city government,” said Osborn. “Valdosta is a growing community whose benefits are attractive to people who think that we have plenty of jobs and places to live here. When people are down on their luck, there is no one place they can go to get help for their multiple problems.
“If a person is not able to work because of mental illness, it may take up to two years for the government to recognize his illness and grant him a disability check. In the meantime, he cannot work, there is no long-term housing for him and he may have alienated his friends and family through his illness. If he is not living in a stable place, he will not be able to receive notices of mental health appointments, doctor appointments or even food stamps. Housing is a huge component of health care. It is not possible to be compliant with medications and appointments when you are sleeping in a camp in the woods.”
The annual homeless count conducted within the city of Valdosta through the assistance of the 211 of South Central Georgia, South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, Valdosta State University professors, and other entities did not take place this year due to cuts in funding. Thus, the funding cuts that provide resources for the homeless count are yet another setback in the ability to identify homeless individuals and methods to address their needs.
Since 1995, the South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, in cooperation with 211, has been serving 18 counties from Waycross to Tifton through supportive services. The Valdosta South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness’ office currently serves 70 people working with men, women, and an increasing number of veterans. But all too often, homeless men, in particular, are literally left out in the cold because many services cannot address men. According to Osborn, four or five years ago, a grant was allotted for a men’s shelter, but nothing has happened and the Salvation Army facility can only take in a few males at one time.
“We just don’t have a place here for homeless men. We need to increase homeless awareness,” said Osborn. “Funding restrictions mean that a single man could stay at the Salvation Army for a few nights, but not long enough to be rehabilitated from his substance abuse or mental health issues. Detox and mental health placements do not last long enough to ensure stability of the person placed. Funding cuts at the state and federal level have occurred every year in the past few years, further restricting the help that could keep people off the streets.”
And in regards to affordable housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Georgia, the fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment is $679. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household must earn $2,262 monthly or $27,144 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a housing wage of $13.05 per hour.
“Affordable housing means not paying more than 30 percent of your income on housing,” said Osborn.
Housing is not the only issue for the homeless. Many have great difficulty obtaining Medicare or Medicaid and having proper identification made. Half of Osborn’s 40 clients are still trying to get disability benefits, including mental disability.
“Health care is one of the biggest reasons people become homeless,” said Osborn. “Indigent care will pay for hospitalization but does not cover medication.”
Lead Case Manager Diane West and Case Manager Kelly Strozier also work to fight homelessness and are a major part of the upcoming Homeless Services Fair, scheduled for April 12 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pointe Ministries Church in Lee County gave 200 of 700 blankets for homeless individuals to the South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, and the blankets will be distributed during the fair.
Nationally, it also seemed like concerns addressing the homeless count have diminished. The following are some examples of the decreasing homeless legislation according to the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 Budget proposal and The National Alliance to End Homelessness: The Emergency Food and Shelter Program would be decreased by $53 million to $100 million; Funding for the Section B Housing Choice Voucher program would be about $1.3 million less than is needed to fund existing vouchers; $25 million of homeless assistance for a prisoner re-entry initiative was cut; Community Development Block Grants are slated for a $659 million decrease; and the Violence Against Women Act will decrease by $120 million.
To be fair, this is not to say that some program will not experience an increase or be unchanged. According the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the following programs would receive increases in funding: Health care for the homeless will be increase by $2 million to $178 million; Projects to Assist in the Transition from Homelessness by $7 million to $60 million; Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program by $2 million to $26 million, and another $75 million increase for incremental HUD-VASH Vouchers. But shouldn’t there be increases to address these issues anyway?
It will take more than a few soldiers to fight this battle in helping others. So, Osborn remains hopeful.
“A few letters, phone calls, and contacts to our legislature makes a huge difference,” said Osborn. Osborn and a few faithful others are definitely on a quest to address the sick and homeless with affordable homes and health insurance, and make them truly feel at home.