Chuck Williams

Chuck Williams: Is Columbus homelessness on the decline?

By CHUCK WILLIAMS

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

A 2015 photo of a Columbus homeless camp near the Chattahoochee River.
A 2015 photo of a Columbus homeless camp near the Chattahoochee River. Chuck Williams

On the coldest of nights, you can feel social change in the air.

It’s brisk and biting; and you really have to pay attention to the least among us to notice it.

“Something is happening,” said Neil Richardson, chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail and executive director of the Chattahoochee Valley Jail Ministry.

Something, indeed.

So far, Richardson has opened SafeHouse, a homeless resource center in Rose Hill United Methodist Church, as an emergency alternative to the streets, 10 times this year. There appear to be fewer people in need of the shelter this year than year’s past.

“We are nowhere near capacity,” Richardson said Monday. “And it is not just us. It is the others that do this, as well.”

Last year, the high at SafeHouse was 82 clients, while this year the highest was 55 last Wednesday. Every time the doors opened a year ago, there were 70 or more.

After years of effort, is the city finally starting to solve the city’s homelessness crisis?

In her State of the City address last month, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson was careful in her words, but she said as much.

“Long thought to be a challenge with no solution, Columbus, through the Zero: 2016 Campaign, the Housing First strategy and our community partners, has changed the course of homelessness by permanently housing 86 homeless veterans,” Tomlinson said.

“In just one year, we have reached the goal of ‘functional zero’ for our homeless veteran population, meaning Columbus has either housed all of its homeless veterans, or has the capacity and services to do so as other homeless veterans are identified. We additionally have housed 55 chronically homeless (non-veterans) in the Zero: 2016 Campaign, and are on our way to meeting our second goal of ‘functional zero’ for the chronically homeless, who largely make up the encampments around town, by the close of 2016.”

Like the mayor, Richardson points to the Home for Good, a United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley agency, as a big part of the reason. Home for Good is an umbrella group that is pooling together other agencies to take the chronic homeless off the street and get them in long-term housing solutions. The city, through Zero: 2016, is armed with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers aimed at homeless veterans and those who have spent years on the streets.

Zero: 2016, with the seemingly impossible task of eliminating homelessness in a community of 200,000 people with its share of social ills, was in its early stages a year ago when Home for Good did a point-in-time survey of the local homeless. Volunteers went onto the riverbank, into the homeless camps and into the shelters during the last week of January. They found that 149 people said they slept outside on Jan. 26, 2015, another 135 said they were homeless and slept in shelters that night.

Many of those same volunteers were back on the streets a couple of weeks ago, said Home for Good Executive Director Pat Frey, who has been in the job for about six weeks. The numbers are still being crunched and won’t be public for a few more days, but Frey said expect good news.

“I am not ready to talk numbers, but in percentages I think we are looking at a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the chronic homeless,” Frey said Monday.

Not only are the homeless showing up in smaller numbers at the shelters, according to Richardson, they are getting hard to find on the streets.

“We have had two crews on the streets on the really cold nights either giving them extra blankets are trying to convince them to come into the shelter,” Richardson said. “We are not finding as many. And that’s a fact.”

It will be interesting what the latest numbers from the point-in-time count show.

“It’s working,” said Frey, who was a volunteer with the Home for Good effort before becoming the executive director. “The numbers seem to indicate that. We hope to help the skeptics see that with concrete numbers and people who have gone from the streets to a home.”

There is still a ways to go, but this progress should not be taken lightly. Some leaders have called the Zero: 2016 effort and the accompanying housing vouchers, the best chance in a generation to deal with the homeless issue.

They appear to be right.

“I tell you what we can do if we come together; we can cure homelessness,” the mayor said in her State of the City address.

Notice, she did not say eliminate, she said “cure.”

Maybe we are getting closer as a community to curing this terrible disease that is homelessness.

Contact Chuck Williams, senior reporter, at chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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