Sandwiched between bridges on Second Avenue and Veterans Parkway in downtown Columbus is a vacant warehouse on a tract that covers an entire city block.
Along the covered loading dock of that building at the corner of 17th Street and Third Avenue, pushed tightly against the brick facade, are bed rolls and even an old bed frame and mattress.
For some Columbus residents, it's home.
And home is simply known as "The Ledge," where about a dozen homeless people live with just enough roof and concrete to keep them out of the rain and beat back some of the winter wind.
It is one of seven such encampments that advocates are working to eliminate. A group led by Home for Good: The Alliance to End Homelessness emptied a homeless community off of a Chattahoochee RiverWalk pavilion late last year.
"The Ledge" is the next camp on the list as the advocates systematically address these communities and attempt to get those who live in them into shelter. With that shelter comes help for the issues that have led or compounded the homelessness.
This is about addressing the core of the problem, finding housing for them and not just moving them to another similar spot, said Pat Frey, executive director of Home for Good.
"Not everybody will accept housing, but we will continue to go back to those individuals because we will see them again," Frey said. "Everyone can be housed that wants to." That's the goal, but it is held by people with a realistic view of the issue and its complexity.
Neil Richardson, executive director of Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministries, and SafeHouse, a homeless ministry in Rose Hill United Methodist Church, said his agency and others were taking advantage of a situation to house people.
"Some enjoy life off the grid because it's temporarily working for them," he said. "This is not a law enforcement effort. This is a compassionate effort."
A majority of the city's homeless camps are concentrated along the Second Avenue corridor from J.R. Allen Parkway into downtown, where the help agencies such as the Homeless Resource Network, Valley Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Open Door Community Center and House of Mercy are located. Home for Good's January count of the Columbus homeless population showed that there were 303 on Jan. 24 -- 217 in shelters and 86 sleeping outside.
What is happening, say those involved, is a good-faith effort to address the issue of homelessness in Columbus. And they are addressing it in the same manner they did the RiverWalk pavilion and an informal faith-based feeding station in a nearby city park. Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren said last week his agency was not involved in the effort to move the squatters off "The Ledge."
"I would much rather this be a civil action," Boren said. "If they run into issues, they can call us and we will go up there and take care of it."
This is a change in philosophy from past years, Boren said.
"Five or six years ago, the police would have been the first ones in there," he said. "We would have gone in there, looked for outstanding warrants and problems. By doing it this way, there is no intimidation. The money and the housing vouchers are there to find them shelter. The purpose is not to put them in jail."
The biggest obstacle to shutting down the homeless camps is many of those in them don't want assistance and they don't trust those trying to help, Frey said.
"We have to build trust where the individuals trust us enough to come along and listen for more than five minutes," she said. "They all have been promised something before and it never came through."
One of the essential elements to shutting down the camps is understanding the hierarchy, Frey said.
"There is a hierarchical structure in every one of the camps," she said. "As in any community, any neighborhood you have the person that everybody in the neighborhood goes to for advice or direction. These camps are no different."
These camps also take on a family-like structure, Frey said.
"For instance at 'The Ledge' they have their own version of a neighborhood watch," Frey said. "They take shifts and make sure somebody is always there to watch everyone's stuff. And even if you don't see somebody, they see you."
Ron King, the retired executive director of the Pastoral Institute, has taken a keen interest in the city's effort to combat homelessness over the last few years, said those on the streets need to be treated on an individual basis.
"Every one we see is a wounded individual," King said. "Living on the streets is the best situation for their woundedness. This is all about housing and the wrap around services to deal with those wounds. You have to deal with addiction, mental health issues and alcohol issues for this to work. We can't just put a person in housing and then walk off and leave them."
Mayor of 'The Ledge'
James Powers, 69, is generally acknowledged as the mayor of "The Ledge" by those working to clean it up. Powers, with apparent health issues, was smoking a cigarette Monday when he was approached by a reporter and photographer. He said he had been living on the warehouse loading dock "for six or seven months."
Powers knows something is up because "church people" and reporters are coming around "The Ledge" these days.
"The owner tells us we got to go," Powers said.
The property, the former Burnham Van Lines facility, is owned by Skippy Finance LLC of Tacoma, Wash., according to Columbus tax records. The property covers an entire city block and is currently listed for sale.
For Powers and the others who have taken up residence on private property, the timeline for their departure will become more clear on Monday when a Dumpster is scheduled to be placed on the site. The hope is the Dumpster will spur movement and allow the local agencies to try to assist those at "The Ledge," Richardson said.
"We're going to give them until Friday to get any of their belongings that they want out of there," Richardson said. "What's left will go into the Dumpster."
It's tough love, but necessary. In addition to the Dumpster, there also will be representatives from various homeless agencies talking to those who live on "The Ledge" and offering housing and assistance options.
Home for Good, New Horizons, Homeless Resource Network and Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministries are the primary groups providing access to the support services as people are moved from homelessness into housing, Frey said.
"It may be birth certificates, bus passes, it may be mental health assistance, substance abuse, it may be getting them on SSI, getting them food stamps, transportation, and any of those combinations," Frey said.
"There is also the ongoing case management so that someone is checking on them. To be honest, that is the key. Anybody can give someone a couple of months rent, put them in a house and say, 'OK, we're done.' But someone going to ensure that the lights are still on and the bills are getting paid and they are making the doctors' appointments. That is ongoing hands-on help is the key."