I-TEAM: Barriers keeping aid from families facing homelessness 

Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 6:53 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Families at a breaking point across Augusta. Many are one bill - one step away from homelessness.

Since November we’ve exposed how local non-profits are struggling to meet the meteoric rise in basic needs among the homeless while grappling to combat an even bigger crisis before hits.

Families with children, working parents even, are finding themselves newly homeless and in need of help. But the I-TEAM uncovered repeatedly, that help is often out of reach for them.

“Imagine a paper bag, and that paper bag is filled with water. You know it’s about to burst, and it’s starting to leak, but it hasn’t burst yet, that is where we are with the at-risk population in terms of homelessness in the community.”

The Salvation Army’s shelter did not have any family rooms a few years ago. Children just didn’t come to the shelter. One night last week, 22 children stayed there.

The I-TEAM’s Liz Owens went before the Salvation Army’s stakeholders meeting to share her reporting and what she uncovered locally with what barriers are keeping assistance from needy families.

A year ago, Alessia had a home, a full-time job, and provided for her children.

“As long as I have had income coming in, I have never had a hard time providing for my kids and paying my bills.”

That year ago now feels like a lifetime ago. Today her children are eight, three, one, and one month old. We found the family sleeping in a broken-down SUV… stuck in a revolving door of dead ends.

Barrier #1: Revolving Door of Dead Ends

Alessia tried to get help. She made calls in December when she lost her apartment. She made 22 calls the week before she called us in January. She and her friend make more calls the day we meet her.

The Salvation Army, Marion, Barnes, Bright House Family Promise, Safe homes, and a lot more. She says nobody reached back out.

Alessia’s friend has been there with her to witness the cycle of dead ends.

“We call all the shelters we were going online they were full. Even when they came out here the sign on the door said full. Women’s shelter full. Men’s shelter full.”

No home. No way to stay warm with snow is on the way. Alessia is desperate when she reaches out to our news station. We made calls that night and a few hours later walk her and her children into the only family shelter in the city.

“I’m reaching out, she is reaching out, it actually took a news reporter to get them here where they could say okay we have a room that she can get into.” Added the friend.

A revolving door of dead ends with nowhere to turn.

Barrier #2: Nowhere to Go

Alessia carries her family’s belongings in bags and boxes out of the shelter every morning. Clothing, diapers, formula all out, every day. Checkout is 8 a.m.

Alessia and her children have nowhere to go until they can check back into the shelter at 4 p.m.

“The lady says it’s the rules so I had to struggle with finding a ride so we could go somewhere else.”

One cold morning she and her children had to sit in Liz’s car to stay warm. It’s 43 degrees.

Liz: “I can understand why it can happen to other populations. I have a hard time understanding how it can happen to children.”

Dr. Rhodes: Yeah. I agree. I agree.”

After our questions, Dr. Gregory Rhodes allows Alessia and her children to stay during the day. Alessia is the exception.

Maybe it’s because we are involved. Our photographer caught another family outside in the early morning hours, still there in the afternoon. And we found them again outside five days later.

We meet another mother at the shelter. Her high school daughter was transitioned to home learning but has no home to learn from.

There is no day shelter in Augusta. There is nowhere for families with children to go but to congregate with other homeless populations outside until the night shelter opens.

Barrier #3: Childcare/School

Two weeks after checking into the shelter, we find Alessia’s elementary school aged son still doesn’t have a ride to school. A bus is not available, and she can’t use the cab voucher from the school until she has car seats.

Alessia is frustrated her son doesn’t have a way to school. She has no car and no car seats. She told the school he is homeless. “Nobody said anything about a bus, it’s just mandatory that he go to school every day.”

The second grader is at a critical stage in his education in learning to read that affects the rest of his life and his ability to read and comprehend tests.

Yet again, we make more calls to help break down barriers. It wasn’t until 20 days after entering the shelter that Alessia was able to get car seats and her son has a ride to school. But, her life is still on hold with her other children.

She has pending job offers and she wants to work.

But she has no childcare. We make more calls.... until someone calls her back to help guide her through the application process for head start and childcare assistance.

Barrier #4: Limited Access to Resources

The Marion Barnes Resource Center provided Alessia with a list of last chance apartments. Even if there was an availability, which there is not, but if there were - Alessia would need some sort of income to qualify.

She has job offers but her applications for childcare are still pending. She can’t work from home because she doesn’t have a home and can’t get a home until she gets a job.

A maddening cycle of more false starts, false solutions, and more dead ends.

Derek Dugan with the Salvation Army sees the shift in need over the pandemic. It’s not just people on the streets in need of help, singular people fighting addiction or mental health and now - it’s working families with children.

“The limitations placed on funding and services right now are pretty narrow. Meaning there are people who don’t qualify for assistance but you or I would hear their story and realize they absolutely need assistance… the systems we had in place to address the needs prior do not fit the needs now.”

In Richmond County alone, the I-TEAM found 208 children entered foster care during the height of the pandemic from April 2020 through March of 2021. The fourth most common reason for removal: inadequate housing. Data shows up to 46 percent of foster children will become homeless once they age out and thus, the cycle repeats.

Alessia’s friend isn’t homeless, but she’s seen enough firsthand. “It’s completely flawed. It’s failing families that really need help. "

A system that has not kept up with the evolving face of homelessness until the I-Team’s coverage of the crisis. Dugan with the Salvation Army all calls to the shelter will now go straight to someone a shelter employee. They have also hired two social workers.

They are in the process of forming a partnership with another non-profit to provide childcare and a day shelter for families.

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