I-TEAM: Bill could ban homeless camps; what does it mean here?

The I-TEAM breaks down what this means for Augusta-Richmond County.
Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 5:16 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The faces of our city’s homeless population are changing once again. Two-thirds of the people staying at the city’s only overnight family shelter have jobs and go to work.

The Salvation Army is also housing nearly an equal number of women and men now and welcoming more families with children.

The Salvation Army tells the I-TEAM it is expecting to see another shift soon, too, if Governor Kemp signs Senate Bill 23 into law. If enacted, it would ban homeless camps, and it would hold local governments accountable for the public dollars they receive to combat the homeless crisis.

The I-TEAM breaks down what this means for Augusta-Richmond County.

The state provides county governments, including Richmond County, with money to help people get into housing.

Georgia leaders now want to know where our tax dollars are going and how successful local homeless programs are at helping our most vulnerable.

The pandemic hit families like a train. Lives that were once on the track out of poverty suddenly came to a screeching halt.

“This is something that the Salvation Army people we have talked to have never seen in any of their areas,” says Derek Dugan.

Dugan is the Director of Development for the Salvation Army of Augusta.

“The demographics of whom the Salvation Army is serving have changed dramatically in the last five years and even more dramatically in the last year. The increase in families, the increase in intact families, father, mother, ship. You have full family units coming into the shelter.”

According to data from the Salvation Army’s Homeless Management Information System or more commonly known as HMIS within the organization, the number of men versus women staying at the shelter now is nearly 50-50.

The number of children and the number of intact families both dad and mom are higher than ever before.

We asked why Dugan thought he may be seeing more women and more families.

“Primarily, it’s the affordability of housing and the increase in housing costs with their income, not matching those costs, the increase in income,” Dugan explained. “But, more than two-thirds of the people who stay in our shelter, men, and women combined are working and many of them are working third shifts, which the Salvation Army allows them to sleep during the day. But the rate of pay versus the rate of housing costs are not comparable, leading to more people needing a place to live.”

This also is leading to more homeless camps throughout the county, and more people with nowhere to go, now found sitting in parking lots like the one across from Sacred Heart.

“People that are not in the system are not able to get any help beyond that day. And that is what we are really encouraging, the Salvation Army, as well as the other agencies involved in the homeless task force, are to get casework involved and develop a plan based on their individual circumstances, whether it be an addiction, whether it be mental health, inflated housing costs, job skills training, any other elements that are in that are stopping them from success.”

HMIS is also the program local agencies and governments use to track homeless individuals and the services provided to them.

State leaders also hope to use it to hold counties accountable for the public dollars they are receiving to combat the crisis. Senate Bill 23 mandates local governments to undergo a state audit of public spending on homeless programs and systems.

If made into law, it would also ban public camping and prohibit hospitals, local governments, and local authorities from dropping off homeless individuals in counties other than such person’s county of residence. The I-TEAM found that this is a common practice that happens in Richmond County.

Not only did we meet people on the streets telling us about an agency from a neighboring county that dropped them off here in Augusta, but we also uncovered a trail of bus tickets where the state sends inmates leaving prison here to Augusta as well.

Senate Bill 23 would allow the Attorney General to go after agencies dumping homeless off outside of their home county.

In the meantime, the Salvation Army needs help - helping. They’re asking for other nonprofits, volunteers, or anyone wanting to make a difference to come to the shelter on the last Friday of every month for a resource fair and food distribution.

“The whole community needs to come together and provide incentives for receiving the services and a plan for success for the future,” says Dugan.

And to ultimately help families and others to get back on track in life.

Senate Bill 23 is on the governor’s desk. If made into law, the first audit of local money spent on homeless services will take place in December.

The resource fair and food distribution just started last month. It will take place on the last Friday of every month from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the afternoon.