The Valdosta Daily Times
Last Friday, Ben and Debbie Shipe were homeless. Debbie’s body ached from nights spent on the concrete under the eaves of the Patterson Street James M. Beck Overpass, and Ben’s head bled from a wound caused by an assault from another homeless man over food.
Today, they will spend the night in a one-bedroom apartment, where they will stay rent- and bill-free for the next three months.
After The Valdosta Daily Times printed an article Monday sharing the stories of four homeless individuals, Lowndes County residents responded with an overwhelming curiosity about the homeless as well as the desire to offer a helping hand.
Marvin Peavy, owner of Peavy Properties, a company that specializes in Section 8 and low-cost housing, read about the Shipes in the newspaper and offered to donate an apartment for free to the couple through the South Georgia Partnership to End Homelessness.
“My wife told me about the ad in the paper, and we did business (with the SGPEH) together already, so I wanted to give them the apartment,” Peavy said.
The Shipes got in touch with the SGPEH through Crossing Jordan Baptist Church, where they went for free breakfast the last two Sundays. There, they met SGPEH Executive Director Dr. Ronnie Mathis, the pastor of the church, who was intrigued by their story in the paper that following Monday.
By that time, the SGPEH had already developed a case file based on the details from the news item, Mathis said. The organization got in touch with the Shipes again through the church’s outreach services, and brought them into the SGPEH to fill out intake paperwork and take the necessary background checks and drug screenings, and to give them both medical attention.
While this is a story of successful outreach and application of social services, the case of the Shipes is one of many in a continuing battle to serve the homeless across the South Georgia area. Kenny Sumner still needs orthodontic work after four years of living on the streets without a way to clean his teeth, and Paul Borusch is still trying to make his way back home to Pennsylvania. Both still live under the same overpass as the Shipes.
The community came forward to offer these individuals a variety of things — food, clothes, blankets, mattresses, pro bono law representation, battery-powered clocks to help them get up on time, prayers for their spiritual health and encouragement to persevere. Some dropped off their
donations by the bridge, while others were unsure how to manage their donations.
One couple expressed a desire to purchase Borusch a bus ticket home, but did not respond to phone calls. Peavy said the SGPEH can arrange transportation services through their partnerships with other organizations.
Jim Harnage of Silent Ministries Outreach in Statenville came to Valdosta to sit down on the ground with the overpass homeless, listen to their stories and needs, pray with them and offer their services.
“We’re talking about putting together a workshop where we can help the homeless get government assistance they need, helping them get attorneys, helping them get permanent addresses, putting them up in housing from a few days to a few weeks,” Harnage said. “You’ve got those who want to ride the trains — it’s the romance of their life — and then you have folks like the Shipes. We can’t help them all, but we can help those who want help.”
But one of the biggest problems is getting those who want help the information they need to get it, Mathis said. The SGPEH has partners across its 18-county system, but still lacks the funding to support a constant outreach service, he said.
The SGPEH relies on individuals, civic groups and other organizations to report the homeless they discover who may not know they are eligible for assistance. Often all they must do is step forward and ask for help.
The SGPEH develops case files for each individual who approaches the organization, and offers housing and other services after a background check and drug screening. While they turn no one away outright, Mathis said, those with violent crimes or sexual offenses on their records, or who are struggling with addiction, are often difficult to place, Mathis said.
Section 8 housing will not accept sex offenders, for example, because these individuals have certain proximity restrictions. And other shelters will not accept couples who co-habitate outside of wedlock or those with pets.
What SGPEH can offer is a connection to other organizations that do help the homeless dealing with special circumstances, such as Uplift Incorporated Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Facility in Morven.
When these individuals successfully complete that program, the SGPEH can offer them housing services. The organization can also transport homeless having a hard time finding a shelter to Atlanta, where there are greater opportunities for individuals with special circumstances.
The case of Joseph Judah is another success story for the organization. Judah lived for eight years on the streets after giving in to drugs and alcoholism and making “poor decisions” that led to divorce and the loss of his job, his residence and proof of his educational history.
He worked as a diesel mechanic, then one day he decided he didn’t want to work, he said.
“I went on a week-long binge on Jack Daniels and tequila. My boss fired me, and I lost my driver license because I couldn’t pay my child support,” Judah said. “I went from having everything to having nothing.”
He was asked to leave the Miami apartment complex where he lived. When he told them he didn’t have any place to stay, he said they told him, “That’s not our problem.” He spent the next eight years in transit.
“You name a place, and my feet have stuck out from under it,” Judah said.
He has been shot, stabbed and hit by a car, he said. He has fled from gangs. He said the best place to sleep on the street is in a refrigerator box. He has searched in dumpsters for food, and fought with other homeless people over what he found.
“I learned to be careful when you go dumpster diving because sometimes it can make you sick,” he said. “You have to stay away from seafood restaurants, but that fast-food restaurant around the corner might have something you can eat.”
Judah met Kelly Strozier, senior case manager for SGPEH, in Tifton at a shelter for homeless men where she was doing intake. He received a pair of glasses for his vision problems and gave Strozier his name.
She changed jobs after that initial encounter, and Judah returned to the streets. When he arrived at the facility at 601 N. Lee St., Strozier remembered his name. Judah, who guessed he would be turned away when he asked for help, was impressed at her memory, he said, and was happy to learn he would receive the assistance he needed.
Judah came in to the SGPEH the last week in February, he said, and by the first week of April, he was sleeping in an apartment with a door that would lock. He slept on the floor, he said, but still felt safer than he had in eight years.
Judah is at work earning his GED, and plans to enter into Wiregrass Technical College to get a permanent job and get his life back on track.
“If it wasn’t for Kelly Strozier, I’d probably be dead,” Judah said.
Judah’s story is one of many in a revolving door of clients who come to the SGPEH for assistance either because they are turned away from other shelters and institutions, or to help get their lives on track.
“We have to stop looking at things in terms of ‘their problem,’” Strozier said. “This is our problem.”
Alcoholism, drug abuse, hunger and homelessness lead to crimes of desperation and the downfall of any community, Strozier and Mathis agreed. When homelessness is addressed as a civic problem that affects the community of Valdosta, Lowndes County, Georgia and the United States as a whole. These crimes can be fought with positive advocacy.
“Most people are shocked to learn that we have more than 100 families that are homeless with children in Valdosta and Lowndes County schools,” Mathis said.
The housing availability is there, Strozier said, but the SGPEH needs a way to get the word out to the homeless. The organization has no way to manage donations of clothing and other items, but it is in constant need of monetary donations.
The SGPEH receives most of its operating budget from Housing and Urban Development funds, but they must be matched by community dollars to continue programs to eradicate the problems that lead to homelessness. Donations can be made at the office at 601 N. Lee St.
The SGPEH will hold a candlelight vigil to remember the homeless who have died on the streets, 7-7:45 p.m., Dec. 18, in the parking lot, also at 601 N. Lee St.