There is an old joke about nothing being a big deal until it’s happening to you. This could be said about homelessness in Pickens County. If you are without a place to stay then it’s a massive problem, but for the rest of us it wouldn’t rank very high on the list of issues.
Over the past couple of weeks, two stories put the homeless problem front and center. First, the leaders of the homeless shelter on East South Street with it’s 12 or so clients have indicated they will be relocating — it’s a complicated situation. There are signs posted that the building is not safe; they are involved in a lawsuit with the landlord and are in conflict with the city as well.
The second story was a profile of a man with severe diabetes complications living in a van (Word came Monday came he had hit two vehicles in a restaurant parking lot over the weekend and his van was towed from the site while he was sent to the hospital with minor injuries.)
If you are any of these people, then homelessness is a daily challenge.
It’s hard to get an estimate on the numbers here. The people at the shelter felt it was a large number and even mentioned some tent cities.
Sheriff Donnie Craig said there are no estimates of people living in any type of tents/abandoned building or on the streets as it isn’t enough to make reports or be a law enforcement concern.
The CARES Food Pantry director described the situation as people “in and out of homelessness.” His impression from the clients they see is homelessness is a persistent but not widespread problem here. It is something they see regularly but with a limited number of cases among food pantry clients.
CARES said they were studying the problem – and we would strongly support the restraint of not leaping into action until there is a solid plan.
Among the questions/points we
would urge hard consideration on:
People with experience with the homeless say a program/staff is of paramount importance. While some people are putting public emphasis on a shelter building, it’s seems clear having key people/staff on board is a better first step.
When it is time for a building, location is crucial. There has been criticism of the current shelter’s operation right off Main Street, but you can’t put people without reliable transportation at the edge of the county and a large homeless shelter isn’t likely to be welcomed in any residential area.
For those new to the area, it is worth recalling in the 1990s, Jasper had a homeless shelter in an old hospital building that sat in the greenspace on the south end of downtown. It was eventually shut down and the city bought the property and demolished the building, as it had become a constant source of problems including illegal activity, arrests made, and an eyesore with items from a related thrift store left in the street. Mayor John Weaver, who dealt with it during his tenure, recalled it started out with good intentions and the city worked with them, but people came to it from everywhere and it devolved into chaos.
Our bet is if we rush for a shelter without developing a program first, we’ll see the same result. Let’s learn from our history and be sure we are ready and willing to help people down on their luck but in an organized sustainable approach.