SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Homelessness in the United States has increased overall in the past two years, according to a Dec. 2022 report by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Georgia, Chatham County has the second highest rate of homelessness out of all other counties in Georgia.
There are over 1,000 homeless individuals in Chatham County, a number that does not include the over 800 Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) who are homeless.
Many people grow up thinking that homelessness will never be something they will experience. Because of this, they develop stereotypes about the unhoused that are based on the perception that it is somehow the fault of the unhoused person that they do not have housing.
WSAV NOW’s Angel Colquitt spoke with members of Savannah’s homeless community about what they wish housed individuals knew about being homeless.
“Most of us are just people who just want to get by and be treated like people,” Paula Smith said.
Smith is homeless and has been for five years. She says she’s been sober for 33 years.
“People don’t see that. They see a homeless person and they immediately think drug raddled, alcoholic, criminal who’s gonna grab my child and drag ‘em off and sell them on the [black market],” she said.
Smith explained that this is untrue and a horrible stereotype to encourage.
“As a group, we’re not that dangerous,” she continues.
Smith lives in a homeless camp, one of the 39 unregulated camps in Chatham County. She said she’s scared of staying in a shelter due to her PTSD. However, she notes that the people she lives near in her camp are a “big, messed up, dysfunctional family.”
Smith also wants people to know who are homeless deserve dignity and respect.
“I’m tired of being treated like I’m less than human, just because I am forced to live in conditions that no human should be forced to live in,” Smith stressed.
“Something needs to be done. The homeless situation in Chatham County is getting worse,” Kenny, a man who used to live at the camp that was recently cleared out under the Truman, said.
Kenny feels the police in Savannah are finding new reasons to arrest the homeless members of the community, even if certain things (like panhandling) are legal.
“They profile just the homeless,” Kenny said.
Kenny says there just aren’t enough resources available for those who need them. He feels that money being invested into the city’s homeless population is more geared towards making the city appear nicer for tourists, not for improving the conditions of the homeless.
What little resources are available have become unreliable during the pandemic. Smith agreed with the sentiment, pointing out that she struggled to find food within the past six months.
“This week they might serve 11 to 12:30, the next week they might be closed,” Kenny explained. “Why are they closing?”
Additionally, Kenny believes many people don’t realize that it costs money to be homeless. Staying in a shelter isn’t always free.
“The homeless before were having a hard enough time even getting in to shelter, now they gotta pay $70 a week,” he exclaimed.
“$100— 20 bucks a night,” Smith interjected.
“Look at how many homeless people are out here. Look at the ratio to the shelters,” he said. “There’s a problem in this city. Something needs to be done about it.”
Billy and Jerrald
Jerrald has lived in Savannah for 22 years, having made himself a place under the Truman outside the encampment with his friend Billy. Then, because of the people living under the other side of the bridge, he and Billy were ordered to leave.
They were given a paper announcement, telling them that they could not stay where they were. They had only weeks to pack up their things and find a new place to live.
This is what they want you to know.
“I don’t understand half of what’s going on around here,” Jerrald said. He insisted he needed more time.
“Bill spent two days looking for a storage room here in Savannah and there wasn’t one open. It’s kind of hard to put stuff in storage when you can’t find a storage room,” Jerrald explained.
There were several other barriers to finding a new place, including documents that Jerrald and Billy had lost during their years without housing.
“I’m a homeless vet— he’s a homeless vet too but he can’t get ahold of his paperwork,” Billy said. “We consider ourselves brothers because we both served. Brothers take care of each other.”
The City of Savannah has a housing project where they build tiny houses for veterans to live in. However, many of the homeless community in Savannah feel there is a catch to it.
The houses are small and there are only so many available for the homeless veterans living in the area. There are over 200 homeless veterans in Chatham County, according to the Tiny House Project. Phase 1 of the project has housed 23 veterans.
Within the homeless community, there is also a difference between those who have been homeless for a longer period of time versus a shorter period of time.
“There’s supposed to be an unspoken law— that the homeless is supposed to help the homeless,” Billy said. “Help your brother, help your sister that’s out here.”
The four hope that by sharing their experiences they will be able to alert those who are part of the Savannah community to the plight of the homeless in the area.