Augusta, GA (WRDW/WAGT) – A homeless outreach team has taken to the streets of Augusta for the fourth time this week. Their six-day mission: Survey the city’s exploding homeless population to identify service needs and gaps.
The I-Team has partnered with an outreach team for weeks to tell stories of homelessness across our city, from a lack of affordable housing to mental health barriers and still to come — how the alternative care system is adding to the crisis. Our common goal is to shed light on the problem, but also a better understanding of how we got here and what solutions will be needed to help those neighbors who need it most.
We found nearly 40 percent of the Augusta homeless population surveyed so far is in dire need of mental health services.
Mental illness can lead to homelessness and homelessness can lead to mental illness. It’s a cycle now thrown into the mix of more problems to overcome – a global pandemic.
Liz Owens, Investigative Team One Senior Detective, has taken to the streets over the course of several weeks with the task force and the more people we meet, the more stories we hear, the more invisible barriers imprisoning our needy neighbors on the streets.
I was supposed to come back and get my medicine. Explain Tamika.
Sherry tells us, “Bill Gates knows who I am. Former President Trump knows who I am. If you call him and ask him, they’ll confirm it.”
Barrier One: There are no day shelters to access; Torn shelters do not meet all needs
We meet Cherry in the parking lot of the Sacred Heart Culture Center down the street from the Salvation Army’s Hope Center.
She is among the dozens who leave the shelter every morning. There is no day shelter in the city of Augusta. There is no one stop center for homeless services.
“I just want to go home.” Sherry tells Lt. Danny Whitehead.
Lieutenant Whitehead: “Where is this?”
Cherry “371 Miles Ridgeway.”
A quick search through property tax records shows that Cherry owns a home in North Augusta but needs more than a trip across the river to get her off the streets.
The transportation that we found to be a huge barrier to mental health services in Augusta.
Lieutenant Whitehead explained that the lack of transportation leads to much greater problems. “Some go weeks without treatment.”
Lt. Whitehead’s area includes Washington Road. He’s seen the homeless population nearly triple since this spring – up 150% overall.
The Augusta emergency housing voucher program put homeless people in motels here for up to 90 days, but overall, that was a band-aid rather than a fix.
The second barrier: transportation
The I-Team found that this is because forty percent of all the city’s homeless, surveyed through street outreach, suffer from mental illness. So, their individual needs go beyond just housing.
“They have to take medicines. That is the problem that the transport is not there or if it is“There is a limited amount of time they have this means of transportation.” Explains Lieutenant Whitehead.
Serenity Behavioral Health Systems is a PATH provider. PATH or Transition Assistance Projects is a state-funded program designed to provide services to end the cycle of homelessness for people with serious mental illness.
But we recorded it and found it to be about eight to twelve miles from motels on Washington Road and a downtown haven.
“Yes, the city has buses running but they run on a schedule and some of those people with a mental health condition are really struggling with their lives. If they stop taking medication for a while, understanding where they need to be is a struggle.”
The I-Team found that Georgia ranks last in the country in terms of access to mental health services.
The madness in all of it is that something as simple as medicine can preserve it
People are like the person we’ll call “sunny.”
A street outreach team found Sunny sitting on a blanket in her pajamas along the Skinner Mile near I-20. It was cold. It was wet. She was confused and completely detached from reality.
“I doubt I’ll forget it for a while.” Lieutenant Whitehead says. “She is 30. She graduated from college (and) has been a kindergarten teacher since 2017. She has suffered from a mental health condition and we don’t believe because of drugs; probably due to some kind of childhood trauma. Her mental disorder has displaced her.”
CSRA Resource Development Coordinator Linda Barr shared Sunny’s story at the Homeless Task Force meeting last month.
The lady realized she needed some treatment, so she signed the papers. I want to tell you one more thing about this woman: She has a college degree and (was) a professional woman in our society. She has a family that she loves when she comes back and a family she can call them, but they didn’t know where she was.”
It took the Street Outreach team to bring her dry clothes and food over the course of three days before she agreed to get help.
The third barrier: Doctors
Involuntary filing requires a court or doctor’s order. The epidemic has delayed both operations. Doctors assigned to the mayor’s office allowed deputies to bypass both operations.
“If they don’t want to get an evaluation, or get help, we can’t take them for help against their will. They have constitutional rights.” Lieutenant Whitehead says. “We had two of them and (from) these doctors, if we had a mental health call or a suicide specifically, they were able to answer as well. What that did was give another tool to the officers especially if that person needed a mental evaluation.”
ITEAM has found that the government salary for doctors is not enough to keep them here in Augusta. The doctors office at the sheriff’s sub-station has been vacant since August.
To help better understand the situation, ITEAM’s Liz Owens sat down with Richmond County Vice President Patrick Clayton.
Liz asked, “Would prison be less dense if you had doctors on staff?”
“Oh, there is no doubt about it. It helps us convert people instead of taking enforcement action and having to lock them up.” Vice President Clayton told ITEAM that he asked for help at the Marble Mansion.
Liz: “So you went to an elected official and said we need doctors on staff? (Explanation) We don’t need a country (doctor) because they keep leaving, and they don’t pay enough. What was their response?”
Clayton “Well, I didn’t get a response that they said they would come back with me again and I still haven’t heard anything.”
Liz: “I can’t help but think it would be cheaper on the taxpayer, cost the city less money, and save staff time if you dealt with this on the front end rather than the back end.”
Clayton: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
The first team combed the city budget. On page 31, we find Augusta County Richmond has received $82 million in US bailout money.
The commissioners voted to spend a portion of the money on affordable/affordable housing, public safety, economic development, and infrastructure. We found 11 million still available and unallocated.
Back on the streets, Lieutenant Whitehead tries to help as many as possible, including Cherry.
“We will get you to where the soup kitchen is. You know what I’m talking about? We have someone there doing the assessment and they will talk to you and that’s part of the process. Our ultimate goal is to get you home.”
Cherry agrees to go.
It’s someone else Lieutenant Whitehead worked tirelessly for weeks to get off the streets and get care. The humanity of everyone who tries to help – shines through.
“We will make a plan together and help you. Sometimes we need help.”
But her daily help, access to medication and transportation and access to doctors outside of prison are barriers the city has to figure out how to break and solve to help the homeless in our neighborhood truly find their way. Homepage.
The Street Outreach Team reached more than 150 homeless people over four days… 115 of them needed mental health services, 16 of whom were war veterans.
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