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Homeless “crisis” reaching us in small town Pickens

            In a recent article, the New York Times referred to the homeless situation as “an American Crisis.”

            We are not going to say the homeless situation in Jasper, Ga. is quite at crisis level, but it’s definitely commanding a great deal of attention of both city and county governments, the health board, downtown businesses and building owners and the courts.

            Refuge in Jesus homeless shelter has been operating well beyond an eviction hearing in January in a confined area identified by the city as not safe for 16 people – including some children and disabled people who are present there.

            Based on a lengthy presentation at the county commissioners meeting last week, the potential new location the shelter has leased is also no where near code and may lack sufficient sewage capacity.

            The presentation by County Administrator Bill Wood detailed what can only be called a blatant disregard by shelter leaders of permitting requirements for building/fire codes and septic. In a telling rebuke, Wood pointed out the county hasn’t denied the shelter at all, as they have never submitted proper plans for review.     This doesn’t even get into the county’s lack of land use codes specifically for homeless shelters.

            It what appears to be a stand-off between the county and shelter leaders, it’s important to keep two things in mind:

            • The rule of law needs to be obeyed. Building codes are important for a reason – such as ensuring adequate paths for multiple residents to quickly exit in the event of a fire.  And making sure the septic system can handle 16 people before they move in is common sense, not government heavy-handedness. While they are working to help others, the shelter leaders need to play by the rules, too.

            • The people who are likely to suffer the most over this are the homeless. Whether we wanted (or want) to have a homeless shelter here, if we are going to be a Christian community, there is no getting around that Christ was quite clear helping the poor is a duty that can’t be ignored.  

            Following the commissioners meeting, two officials both said the people there are “vulnerable,” letting them be housed in unsafe conditions is not the answer. 

            So what is the answer? We candidly say no good solution has presented itself. We hit this same topic in an editorial when the city of Jasper efforts to deal with the shelter at their downtown location devolved into a stalemate last fall. At that time, we said the first step is some type of program, more so than any building. The director of CARES said their first thought is to work to keep people off the streets to begin with – through counselling, day programs, or maybe some temporary housing. We’d agree. 

            We’d also ask/urge where are our local churches/non profits in this? Who better to lead the way when it comes to ministering to the poor already here?

            As larger cities across America are finding out, there is a fine line between helping those in need and doing it so well you become a destination for neighboring counties to drop off their homeless, as is believed to already be the case here.        One county official said it appears a number of the residents, if not most, had recently come from neighboring counties. We certainly don’t want to see Jasper become a place where other areas send us their homeless. 

            But at the same time, we have ended up with a group who now needs help. 

            The NY Times article cited a combination of factors causing the homeless ranks to swell across the nation, including housing crisis, a mental health crisis and an opioid epidemic.

            None of those leviathan issues are going to be remedied quickly (if ever), so it’s high time this community works together to come up with some coordinated and reasonable approach before we  reach a crisis point.

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