Happy New Year… Now Get Out!
A pre-holiday sweep intended to purge Macon parks of homeless camps raises local ire on both sides, while leaving lingering questions on how best to tackle a complex problem.
It’s a kind of Christmas miracle, really … albeit a little late. It is high noon on December 28, and though most places appear to be open, parking is readily available on practically every block in downtown Macon. No games of parking space chicken between irate lunch-grabbers hungry for wings and pressed for time. No pissy pedestrians taking their lives into their hands (or their own sweet time) at crosswalks. Not a single eye-roll from passing drivers or a tire-squealing brouhaha to be had.
The usual noisy noon-day crowd of in-city dwellers, office workers, and pub-grubbers, it would seem, are either all reveled out from the holidays, cashing in on vacay while the getting is good, or eating their black Angus double-stacks elsewhere.
Just a few blocks away at a homeless center on Walnut Street, however, the lunchtime crowd is spilling out onto the sidewalk. Lined up at the side entrance while waiting for Daybreak staff to unlock the door and usher them inside, the men and women gathering to break their daily bread together don’t appear especially impatient or anxious. As the minutes tick by, however, a ripple of shifting feet and sagging shoulders ratchets up a sense of tension, even as newcomers continue to arrive, and the line gets longer still.
Many are wearing more layers of clothing than the weather strictly dictates while a few are lugging suitcases or overnight-type bags. It takes a minute to sink in that the overdressed diners aren’t necessarily cold – they’re efficient. Wearing most or all their clothing means they don’t have to haul it everywhere they go all day or leave it behind and risk the items either being stolen or lost should they, for any reason, lay down to sleep tonight someplace other than where they woke up this morning.
Just before 12:30, a handful of volunteers from a local church and Daybreak staff members are scurrying around like so many elves, peeling back foil from sheet-pans filled with hot food and futzing with last-minute preparations for the diners getting ready to come inside.
Though mealtime crowds like this one typically range from 75 to 125 people at a time, there’s still plenty of room for parking out front and down the block. Most folks come on foot.
You Can’t Take a Crap in My Park
Just a couple of weeks before today’s lunch, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert publicly announced that, due to overwhelming public safety and health concerns, homeless encampments along the Ocmulgee River and Central City Park were going to be removed. He also met privately with local homeless advocates – including those at Daybreak – to give them a heads up about what was coming down the pike.
A week before Christmas, the mandate was enforced.
Though 30 or so people warned by sheriff’s deputies and outreach efforts had already pulled up stakes and moved on, a few stragglers had remained behind. According to local media reports, Parks and Beautification employees took down nine or so clearly “active” campsites, packed up anything salvageable in plastic bins, placed the items in storage so they could be reclaimed, and hauled away everything that appeared to be trash.
Grinch gifs and hot-under-the collar comments aimed at city hall started flying around social media almost immediately.
“Mayor Robert Reichert is a piece of s*** and all you people on here that agree with this situation. I hope and pray that one day you become homeless and you’re in that situation,” commented one Macon man in a news story link about the sweep posted on Facebook. Another Macon man quickly countered with, “Every person that is against moving the homeless should post their address, so they can move into their yard or house.”
Almost ironically, just two days later, on December 20, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) in Washington, D.C. issued a comprehensive report entitled Tent City USA: The Growth of America’s Homeless Encampments and How Communities are Responding.
According to the 124-page report, “research showed a 1,342 percent increase in homeless encampments reported between 2007 and 2017, with at least one encampment reported in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.” It’s an echo of other news reports surfacing within the past few months that say homeless tallies in the U.S. are on the rise for the first time since 2010, and leading to the kind of “pop-ups” that’s the stuff of nightmares for urban developers and city planners.
Using data and information mined from news stories and other reports, the NLCHP report indicates at least one-third of the so-called “tent cities” in America mirror the kind of encampments dispersed in Macon. About 30% total range in size from anywhere from 5 residents to 11-20 people. And like in Macon, many of the encampments are being pitched in public parks.
But unlike Macon, about one-quarter of the U.S. cities surveyed for the report have responded by enacting local ordinances viewed by critics as “criminalizing” homelessness by prohibiting camping in city parks, initiating park curfews, or nudging homeless populations out of parks and into “public right-of-ways, often near neighborhoods, raising public backlash.” Such actions have prompted not only public criticism, but also litigation – and it’s proving costly for taxpayers in many instances.
According to the NLCHP, in the last three years alone, nearly 60% of the court cases challenging camping or public sleeping ordinances and 75% of those involving seizure and destruction of property belonging to the homeless “have upheld the legal rights of homeless persons to perform various life-sustaining behaviors in public places.” In the Ohio case Moe v. City of Akron, for example, “undisclosed monetary relief” was awarded in a class action lawsuit stemming from, among other claims, the contention that personal items taken during an encampment sweep had constituted unlawful seizure under the law.
Even the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has weighed in. In a 2015 case, after city leaders in Boise, Idaho passed ordinances making it illegal to sleep or “temporarily dwell” in public places, the DOJ filed a statement of interest brief in the case, countering the city’s ordinances violated homeless people’s Eighth Amendment rights and maintaining that “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
Which is all very well for the Department of Justice, says Mayor Reichert, who points out that attorneys in D.C. don’t have department heads lodging concerns that a homeless woman claiming to be “the Messiah” is turning trees meant for replanting into firewood or constituents coming up to them in Kroger with complaints of finding human waste “right out in the open” in a local park.
Public those properties may be, the mayor says, “But you can’t take a crap in my park.”
The Least of These
It’s well after 5 in city hall, or the local government center, or whatever the powers that be in Macon are calling it these days. Just outside, the many splendored and recently installed Christmas lights on Poplar Street are twinkling like little starbursts, evidence that positive changes to downtown aren’t just talk around a table. Despite the hour, Mayor Reichert doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
He is comfortably ensconced behind a rather massive desk filled with important-looking clutter – thickly bound documents and sheafs of scribbled-on paper held together with enormous binder clips are piled everywhere. Also on the mayor’s desk sits a leather-bound Bible. Tagged with sticky notes throughout, it appears well-read. When asked about Matthew 25:40, a verse that references offering aid to “the least of these” as a Christian virtue, the look on his face shifts to an expression difficult to define. A few beats later, and well into a fiery, fist-pounding mantra about Federal input on local governance and somewhere just after hopping down a rabbit hole about releasing the mentally ill, unsupported (and under Federal mandate) upon the masses, the point finally emerges.
Every year, Mayor Reichert maintains, Macon-Bibb puts its money where its mouth is for the “least of these,” contracting with local agencies to provide for those in need of critical services.
“Macon-Bibb Economic and Community Development has allocated approximately $337,671 to agencies that provide homeless services which include, but are not limited to, rapid-rehousing, homeless prevention, birth certificates, ID’s, etc.,” says Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore. “This funding was provided through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) application process over the past two years. Award recipients include Loaves and Fishes, Macon-Bibb E.O.C. and Family Advancement Ministries.”
Balancing the needs of the unsheltered, however, must also be tempered with doing “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” the mayor says.
According to the Georgia Department of Community Affair’s 2017 Report on Homelessness, there are currently 310 homeless people currently residing in Bibb County, yet only 147 available “emergency shelter and transitional housing beds.” While the challenge those numbers present is clear, Mayor Reichert says Macon-Bibb also has a responsibility to ensure that parents can take their children to local parks without fear of “being accosted for money” or asking taxpayers to foot a $1,000+ bill for damage done to bathrooms at Gateway Park.
Growing such attractions and adding new ones, like the $2.5 million renovation project currently underway at Luther Williams Field, will enable Macon-Bibb to do better than stretch “$150 million to meet $500 million of need,” the mayor says.
But not if families and newcomers aren’t drawn to them – and to the downtown area – or feel safe there.
This Was a Wake-up Call
“Every day I walk out of here knowing there are people out here sleeping on these streets,” says Sister Theresa Sullivan, who serves as the director at Daybreak.
One of them, at least until recently, was Keith, a 54-year-old who, in his Georgia Bulldogs cap, camo shirt and faded jeans, looks more like a kindly grandpa than a desperado lurking in the woods or panhandling for drinking money on an interstate ramp.
And yet a little over a month ago, Keith slept in a bed of his own for the first time in at least nine years – more than that really, if you count the time he spent behind bars for vehicular homicide. After leaving a Christmas party with his wife, a car accident claimed her life and left him severely injured. Though both were intoxicated at the time, Keith was the one behind the wheel.
After being released from prison, Keith reunited with his two grown daughters, got to know the grandchildren he’d never met, and managed to land a $60,000-a-year industrial job only to lose it when he was caught drinking on the clock.
“I was a foreman – I had 30 men working under me,” he says in a tone so bumfuzzled, it’s clear he still can’t believe he let that one slip through his fingers.
From there, Keith continued to spiral downward. Unable to offer references for jobs as a convicted felon, and after losing his trailer to a fire that laid him up for weeks, Keith says he saw his options dwindling by the second. A chance meeting with another local man in the same straits led to learning to sleep with one eye – and his pocket knife – open.
Between panhandling and the kindness of strangers (“there’s lots of good people in Macon who will give you stuff”) Keith had a home – of sorts. He had a tent and “whatever I could tote” to call his own until diabetes and other digressive health issues exacerbated by his living conditions landed him in the hospital a second time – this time for 43 days. Nearly losing a foot – his only mode of transportation – to amputation got his attention.
With the help of Sister Judy, who serves as a nurse at Daybreak, he’s since been able to stabilize his health and apply for and receive disability – money he used to get an apartment on Vineville Avenue. He’s also stopped drinking vodka by the half-gallon and regularly volunteers at Daybreak, manning the reception desk or monitoring the Tech Room, where computers with Internet access and phones equipped with personal voicemail capability are available for use. He’s also pitched in when repair work was needed for the showers that are open each morning so that Daybreak clients in need of a hot soak after a long night on the streets can scrub up.
Most recently, he says, he was able to simply relax, lounge on his own couch, and watch a television that belonged to him – a luxury that seemed unthinkable just a couple of months ago.
“If you tell yourself you’re not scared out there, you’re lying,” he says, adding that he feels “sad” for those caught up in the recent sweep at the parks. Though many continue to show up for the morning breakfast, laundry services, and care packages available at Daybreak, they lost the only thing of value they really had, he says – their home.
“That’s the only place they had to live,” he says. “I’ve been there. I can’t be mad at people like that, because I was one of them.”
For Sister Theresa – and perhaps for Sister Judy, who frets about “toxic charity” and “enabling” those in her care – the sweep, while painful to witness, has also brought public attention to a deeply complex problem in need of an equally multifaceted solution.
While several other providers in Macon offer meals, counseling, healthcare services, and transitional housing, the only overnight emergency shelter devoted specifically to the homeless and open to both men and women is the Salvation Army – and they tend to fill up fast. Especially on nights when temperatures dip below freezing, or a lack of transportation, funds, and hope can make shelter from the storm seem like little more than the lyrics of a song.
“This was a wake-up call for people to unite and work together to make sure everyone has an opportunity to have a house, a job, and enjoy safe living,” Sister Theresa says.
While admitting he doesn’t know what that solution looks like, the mayor says he’s open to exploring ideas. “You have to start somewhere, and grow the goodness out from there.”