Valdosta Daily Times

July 3, 2013

Chief shares the facts on homeless

Community unrest prompts second relocation

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — In response to continued dissatisfaction of residents with the relocation of 11 homeless individuals to their neighborhood, city officials and homeless advocates are in the process of relocating the group a second time.

After initial reports the group has been moved Tuesday afternoon, Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress said Tuesday evening he and South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Dr. Ronnie Mathis are moving the homeless camp to an undisclosed church property today.

Last Wednesday, the homeless individuals were taken from the makeshift encampment under the James Beck Overpass and placed in a temporary camp on a vacant piece of property in an undisclosed location in District 1, giving them donated tents for shelter and garbage bins to manage their waste.

The move created tension between Councilman James Wright, speaking on behalf of members of the neighborhood where the homeless were placed, and the people responsible for the project — Councilmember Deidra White, Childress and Mathis, who felt their good intentions were misunderstood.

Wright distributed an email Tuesday to the Valdosta City Council, the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners and the media excoriating the effort for a lack of discussion and public involvement during the planning process. Wright issued prior statements that he felt the community was not adequately informed.

“I am highly disappointed about no one informing me or the community about this matter beforehand,” Wright’s email states. “I nor the community cannot understand why you all would move (the homeless) because of odor and then move them into a community without the proper facilities.”

Childress, who said earlier that he did in fact inform the neighborhood affected by the relocation, issued a response to Wright’s statement, taking full responsibility for the effort and apologizing for not working harder to make the relocation public.

“There was no foul intentions here,” Childress’ email states. “Outlined below is exactly what happened.”

Childress’ statement explains that he was approached by not only White, but also a citizen and a business-owner, regarding trash, cursing and urinating under the overpass, where an increasing number of homeless have been living for several months. Childress did not discuss the area where the homeless would be moved.

Childress contacted Mathis, who was already at work trying to find jobs and permanent shelter for the homeless individuals, and Mathis agreed to help Childress with a relocation effort.

Childress asked area businesses whether they would donate tents for the homeless, and Mathis contacted a property owner to find the vacant lot. Both the businesses and the property owner offered to help with the effort.

He expressed to Mathis that the location was not ideal, Childress said Tuesday, but because Mathis and the property manager both felt comfortable with the area, he went ahead with it.

Volunteer Margie “Cookie” Guyton, who has fed the homeless at the overpass for the past three months, offered to continue feeding the group at the new location. Childress confirmed that Guyton has fed the group with food paid for out of her own pocket every day since the relocation.

Childress admits no background check was performed on the homeless individuals, but adds that it is not legal to perform such checks on anyone unless the individual is under investigation and that he directed his officers to patrol the area until the homeless were moved to a more permanent residence.

Childress contacted a portable toilet company Sunday to make arrangements for a unit to be placed on the property, and stated Tuesday he had not been called back.

“The homeless folks told me they will walk to the nearby shelters and churches to use the bathroom,” the email states. “Regardless of what the rumors are, this was simply an effort to address an issue and help these folks out. No one was picking on a certain community or council district.”

In the email, Childress admits he “could have done a better job communicating with (Wright) and the community,” and that he will do so in the future.

Childress said Tuesday that Mathis had found a new piece of property in a non-residential area discovered through a contact at Habitat for Humanity. The new area will again remain undisclosed to the public to avoid more homeless individuals seeking out the location and to protect the current homeless from harm.

Wright responded Tuesday to the second relocation with further criticism of the lack of full disclosure. As of late Tuesday afternoon, he had not yet read Childress’ email response.

“Why’s this (location) always a secret?” Wright said. “This is public information; this is public money. All these secrets, and they’re using public funds. It’s the taxpayers funding this stuff, and the taxpayers have a right to know.”

Since he heard of the relocation efforts, Wright made contact with the homeless community himself, and confirmed that they were fed everyday around 5 p.m., but that they had no water, he said. Wright plans to lead an effort through his church to take the homeless to a “clothes closet” to get them better clothing.

Wright expressed concerns with keeping the homeless in a grassy area in such rainy conditions, and he hopes the new location, of which he presently has no knowledge, will have some concrete. Soggy grass and soil that holds water could pose serious problems, he said.

“I served on the SGCEH board, and it’s always been about the procedure that was followed to do things like this,” Wright said. “It’s never been just about them.”

Since the original move last week, arrangements have been made to send two of the homeless to their homes with family in other states, and jobs have been found for two others.