The Valdosta Daily Times
The City of Valdosta and advocacy groups relocated 11 homeless individuals Wednesday morning from their shelter under the James Beck Overpass to a small piece of vacant property in District 1.
The move came after the Valdosta Police Department and City of Valdosta received continued complaints about unacceptable behavior under and around the overpass, such as public indecency and panhandling, said Police Chief Brian Childress. The effort is intended to solve the problem with a humanitarian solution as an alternative to arrest. To date, the police have not had to take action.
The city intends to post No Trespassing signs under the overpass to curb homeless individuals from settling there in the future. The VPD will maintain a watch to enforce the measure, and will direct these individuals to the South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness to receive services and lodging if necessary, Childress said.
Conditions under the bridge are unsanitary, and have grown to the point of a serious problem with piles of garbage and human waste creating a foul odor in the area.
Childress served as a liaison for the relocation effort, connecting the SGCEH, the local non-profit Love in Action with Compassion (LAC), Inc. and area businesses to get the group what they needed and to clean up the area.
Academy Sports and Outdoors, Sam’s Club, Walmart and Edward Jones helped get the group tents and food for their temporary stay, and the SGCEH promised to help the individuals obtain identification documents and fill out other paperwork necessary to gain employment.
“There are six businesses here that are willing to hire these people with no discrimination as long as they can pass a background check,” said LAC CEO Margie “Cookie” Guyton.
Guyton has brought meals to the group every day for the last three months, and she intends to continue serving the individuals while they remain in the tent area.
Dr. Ronnie Mathis, SGCEH director, offers everything else, from steps to acquire more permanent living accommodations to finding a job or getting an education. Mathis gathered the group to lay down ground rules before they were transported by bus to the new location.
“We will have zero tolerance for unlawful behavior,” Mathis said. “It’s clean, very shady. There will be no running water but there will be Port-O-Potties. Somebody from my office will come out twice a week to help you get food stamps, IDs, etc., but we need your cooperation to keep it as clean as we can.”
The area was offered by an independent landowner, but the VPD would like the location to remain undisclosed to avoid the impression that it is open to anyone. The area is temporary and intended to serve only the group relocated Wednesday. Other homeless should contact the SGCEH, (229) 293-7301.
Permanent residents of the area were informed of the relocation and appeared to be understanding, Childress said.
“It’s not right to move people without help,” Childress said. “We appreciate the businesses downtown being patient with these people. They said they felt sorry for them, and they’re not looking to get them arrested. That’s what makes this town different.”
Homeless share experiences
Tariq Raheem, originally from Florida, said he has lived on the streets for a couple of years, “in and out of work.” As a man who came from a large city environment, he was disappointed when he came to Valdosta and discovered there was no homeless shelter for men, since most homeless are single males.
“There’s no programs in this area,” Raheem said. “I don’t think there’s much work here, either. And I think most homeless would rather have a job than a place to stay because then you can eat.”
In spite of his disappointment, he was glad for the tent, the food, and the safe place to stay, and he hopes he can find work.
Another individual wishing to be named J.C., has a college education and said he still struggled to find work after his family gave him $1,000 and told him to leave. He is 27 years old.
“I made the wrong choices in life,” J.C. said. “I was adopted. I’m in the system. I had everything, and I took it all for granted.”
Councilwoman spearheads effort
The relocation effort began with concerns raised by City Councilmember Deidra White, who felt it her obligation to address the situation before it got too far out of hand.
“Residents all along MLK had been observing that this camp was growing steadily over the past several months,” White said. “My first commitment is the residents of District 2, and they were concerned about their property value and their safety. It wasn’t that I assumed anything was going on, just that there are no restrooms and no facilities available.”
There was no need to “further displace these people who are already displaced,” White said, but most Valdosta residents would never know about this problem if she had not spearheaded the effort.
“We want to do what we can,” White said. “So I spoke with various people to see what our options were — governmental, civil, non-profit — and I expected the effort to take a couple of months, but it only took about three weeks. I’m happy it could come together so quickly.”
White explained that it is a problem any time there is homelessness in the city, and that solicitation is a recurrent issue not isolated to these recent events.
“We have a lot of transient activity in the downtown area,” White said. “That was not the impetus for this effort.”
Homeless individuals and volunteers can contact Dr. Ronnie Mathis at the South Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, (229) 293-7301.