Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

As winter sets in, Macon-Bibb County struggles to shelter homeless people

Grant Blankenship | Georgia Public Broadcasting
A small fire re-ignited with hand sanitizer as an accelerate warms Conta Price’s feet on a 28 degree morning in Macon in late November. Price said depending on who you talk to on the street, you will hear maybe Macon’s Salvation Army shelter is open to single adults, or maybe it isn’t.

A homeless person starting a fire to keep warm is thought to be the likely cause of a fire that destroyed a vacant warehouse in the industrial district near downtown last week.

The warehouse, at 720 Fifth St., was ablaze at sunrise Dec. 7, days before the county opened emergency warming shelters for the first time this winter.

Macon-Bibb County Fire Department’s lead arson investigator Lt. Kyle Murray said the building was not connected to power, “so it is highly probable that some vagrants had went in that night trying to stay warm and it got out of control.”

Warming shelters opened Monday, but the Macon-Bibb County Homeless Coalition, a consortium of nonprofits tasked with addressing the county’s homelessness issue, struggled to ensure enough beds were available and accessible to those who most needed them.

Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency Director Spencer Hawkins said the emergency warming shelters are opened only “if it looks like the temp is going to drop below 32 degrees for more than two hours.”

The EMA’s notice about shelters opening Monday amid a stretch of freezing temperatures reached few beyond the homeless coalition, which Hawkins said is best positioned to inform those who need it.

“The population that we’re trying to reach, who are the most vulnerable, aren’t watching the 11 o’clock news broadcasts,” Hawkins said. “What we’re doing is trying to make those one-to-one connections with the social services partners that interact with these people every single day.”

In years past, and as recently as 2016, the county made announcements about EMA alerts on its website and social media, detailing shelter availability during extreme weather events.

Hawkins said EMA is in constant communication with the homeless coalition as winter weather becomes less predictable.

The issue of homeless in Bibb County is not one local government tackles directly, though it devotes resources and tax dollars to nonprofits it charges with the task. Instead, the county relies heavily on the coalition, a network of local nonprofits and government agencies that offer food, housing, health and social services to the unhoused.

Though the coalition has been around for years there are still plenty of kinks to work out logistically.

For example, there is no formal plan for offering transportation to the shelters. The county’s largest shelter, the Brookdale Resource Center, is four miles from downtown and, for many, unreachable by foot and/or unaffordable by public transit.

Elsewhere in Georgia, local governments handle warming and cooling shelters directly. For example, ahead of Monday’s extreme weather conditions, Augusta used social media to notify the public about the coming cold, share the locations of county-operated warming shelters and inform it of a no-cost ride on public transit to get there, according to the Augusta government’s Facebook page.

At Depaul USA’s Daybreak Resource Center downtown on Walnut Street early afternoon Monday, John Brown, seated with his back against the wall, said that if it weren’t for Sister Theresa Sullivan, who leads Daybreak, he wouldn’t know where to go to get out of the cold.

“Daybreak helped me a lot,” said Brown, who has been homeless for half a year and uses a walker to get around.

Earlier this year, Brown lost his job as a carnival worker when his  arthritis pain became too unbearable for him to handle heavy equipment. The cold makes his joint pain even worse.

Usually, he pitches a tent in the woods by the Ocmulgee River. But Monday night, Brown said he planned to land a bed at the Salvation Army on Broadway.

“It was either that or the hospital,” Brown said.

After the county EMA gives notice to the coalition, it’s the coalition’s role to collaborate to ensure enough beds are available for hundreds of people like Brown who are among Macon’s most vulnerable.

The coalition includes entities such as Daybreak, the Mentor’s Project and the United Way of Central Georgia, which operates the Brookdale Resource Center on the county’s behalf.

Jake Hall, executive director of United Way’s “Unite to End Homelessness” initiative and head of the homeless coalition, said a total capacity of about 265 beds has been sufficient in the past. Most of them were located at the Brookdale Resource Center and the remainder at Salvation Army.

However, Hall said a recent “mission shift” for Salvation Army “resulted in a net loss of probably 80 beds for a specific demographic of single men and women.”

In the not-so-distant past, the Salvation Army of Central Georgia was at the helm of the county’s shelter situation. Once a key provider to the county’s efforts to reduce homelessness, Salvation Army, by all accounts, has taken a back seat when it comes to providing shelter and services to the county’s unhoused population in recent years.

Its shelter on Broadway has less capacity than Brookdale but is only a 2-mile walk from Daybreak.

On Monday and most of Tuesday, a number of officials and coalition members were unable to say with certainty how many beds the Salvation Army had available.

At a county commission meeting in October, Salvation Army Sergeant Austin Sturdivant told the mayor that as of June, the shelter started serving exclusively veterans or adults with children.

The mayor told the Sturdivant that Brookdale has been “full many times” and that he heard Salvation Army was “no longer taking the ones they don’t get paid for, that you’re only taking veterans that you get a check for.”

Sturdivant told the mayor the shelter would open to single adults only “during extreme weather events.”

Early evening Tuesday, Sturdivant confirmed by phone that the Salvation Army receives a federal subsidy for each bed occupied by a veteran. The Broadway shelter’s capacity is 108 for veterans and families with children plus 40 more – 25 men and 15 women – for single adults.

“We weren’t really collaborating like we should,” said Sturdivant, who took the job as Salvation Army’s sergeant in Macon a year ago in January. “I guess we hadn’t really been at the table with what the biggest needs in the community were.”

Sturdivant said the Salvation Army is working to align its mission and help the county shelter homeless population.

The sub-freezing cold overnight Monday held steady overnight for nearly 12 hours, dipping to a low of 29 degrees in the predawn hours Tuesday, National Weather Service forecaster Vaughn Smith said Tuesday.

“Our seasonal outlook right now has us right around normal, maybe a little bit cooler than normal,” Smith said, adding that extended stretches of freezing temperatures can sometimes be hard to predict.

Sullivan said she would have opened Daybreak overnight if Salvation Army and Brookdale were full, but “I think everybody who wanted to get into housing last night got into housing.”

Hall said both warming shelters reached “moderate capacity” Monday night. Shelters also were open Tuesday night but information about capacity reached was not available late Wednesday.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected].

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