Valdosta Daily Times

July 2, 2013

Homeless intrusion? Neighbors complain, council members say they weren’t informed

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — As the 11 homeless individuals who were relocated last Wednesday from the Patterson Street overpass to an undisclosed  location in District 1, members of the quiet neighborhood surrounding the temporary tent community have raised complaints.

Residents reported they weren’t informed of the relocation, that they feel uncomfortable with the homeless so near their homes, and that they feel they are owed an explanation.

District 1 City Councilman James Wright said he had no prior knowledge of the relocation project either, and he plans to hold a petition for his constituents asking two questions: Did you know about the relocation of homeless individuals into our community? And do you want them here?

“According to the people I spoke to, they were not informed,” Wright said. “A resident called me Wednesday complaining about it and that he heard City Council approved it. I called (Councilman) Sonny Vickers, and he said, ‘No, we haven’t had anything like that on the agenda.’ They didn’t vote to put the homeless people over there.”

The residents who complained to Wright said their safety is at stake, that illegal activities have taken place, and that they have witnessed the new residents

urinating in public.

The re-located residents were promised a Port-O-Potty Wednesday, but as of Monday afternoon, there was no such portable toilet available at the relocation site. Two of the site’s homeless residents said they were visiting a convenience store down the street two blocks away for their bathroom needs during the weekend.

In addition, the homeless residents reported Monday they had not been brought food they were promised either. They ate every day under the James Beck Overpass, but volunteers have had difficulty bringing food to the new location.

Prior homeless that have lived under the overpass reported that it was not difficult to find food in the area, given its proximity to the Department of Labor and a soup kitchen.

In spite of the difficulties, the tension in the area, and the lack of communication, Wright said he wants “a peaceful solution,” and that he will not condone any violence.

“I just want the city to know how frustrated these people are,” Wright said. “I talked with (Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress) and told him that I feel bad. I wasn’t called. (Council Member) Deidra White didn’t call me. Nobody told me anything.”

Lowndes County Commissioner Demarcus Marshall would have liked to have been informed as well, he said, having fielded calls from his constituents.

“It is kind of unfortunate. The area also falls in District 4,” Marshall said. “If it’s something that’s going to affect the residents of my district, I would have liked to have been consulted. I’m not sure I would have had the solution though.”

White, who spearheaded the operation, had no idea where the homeless would be re-located, she said. Her main contacts during the project were homeless shelters like the Salvation Army, the South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, area churches, LAMP, Childress and City Manager Larry Hanson.

White maintains that the problem was a civil issue, not one that required Council action. Such issues are handled with the use of police resources and require no notification, she said.

“It’s not like the people were carried in under the cover of darkness,” White said. “It was an organized community effort. We wanted to help them in a positive way. I understand it might be jarring to find a homeless camp has moved in next to you, but we had one goal and one goal only. To try and help the neighborhood being affected, and to help the homeless people to improve their standing if they let us help them.”

The homeless were told during the relocation process that they did not have to go to the site, but that they could not stay under the overpass.

White explained that the idea for the project came from her knowledge of homelessness in other cities, where problems escalate quickly to health hazards and have to be shut down. Hers was an attempt to be pro-active and find a compassionate solution that did not involve arrests or further displacement, she said.

“No one wants to be the person that displaces people who are already displaced,” White said. “You want to try and help.”

Hanson agrees that the relocation “was not a policy issue,” and that it “was not a thing for a governing authority to vote on.” Instead, it was an attempt to find a temporary solution to a pressing issue with the intent to work toward a permanent solution.

“It’s not against the law to be homeless,” Hanson said. “There’s nothing political about it. A tent community would be a zoning issue, but this is only for short-term use. We have to seek solutions that have an element of common sense to them and have an element of success.”

The effort has, in fact, been successful for four of the 11 so far. During the weekend, South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Dr. Ronnie Mathis worked to make contact with the families of two of the homeless individuals and to solidify job offers for the other two.

The SGCEH purchased a bus ticket for one of the homeless to go back to family in North Carolina, and another ticket to Tennessee for another resident who intends to depart Wednesday or Thursday, Mathis said.

“Before we send these people off, we verify this information,” Mathis said. “If they go, we want to make sure they’ll be able to stay there. We want to be able to say yes, we talked to somebody, and yes, they will have a place.”

Two of the residents will be starting work this week, and the SGCEH is working to make contact with family for a third traveler to go back to Toledo, Ohio, Mathis said.

“That’s all for right now,” he said. “We’re working on them one by one, as quick as we can. It rained really hard over the weekend, so we were concerned about them, but they’re doing fine. They seem to be enjoying the tents. We’re just happy they’re happy.”

Residents wishing to help can contact Dr. Ronnie Mathis at the SGCEH, (229) 293-7301.