Poor and Homeless In Augusta

We like the comfort zone. There we huddle with the routine of coffee, work, yoga class, soccer practice, church, and checking in with social media. It’s only human nature, to create some order amid the chaos and to neatly tuck back whatever is unraveling and say, “I’ve got this.”

When we come across a homeless individual or family, we subconsciously perceive an encroachment on our comfort zone – because homelessness in a thriving community just doesn’t fit. Our typically organized and patterned thoughts then begin to split off and out, like cards flying around a Vegas blackjack table: Why are they here?, How can they live like this?, What is being done?, Who is taking care of this? Should I give them something? Or will the money go to drugs? Will I be mugged? Where are the police? And, then, as we continue to see the same folks day after day, they are likely assimilated as part of the landscape, the routine.

An encounter with homelessness challenges us at the deepest levels of who we are. Converging – and often conflicting – are an assortment of emotions, opinions, our spirituality, sense of civic duty, and our understanding of America as the land of freedom and opportunity. Therefore, it’s difficult to know how to best listen for and respond to the call to join a larger effort to address poverty, to initiate a one-on-one interaction on the street, or to simply have a change of heart or perspective.

“When we look at it [homelessness] from the outside, the easiest thing to do is to unintentionally pass judgment,” said Capt. Philip Canning, Salvation Army area commander. “Keep an open mind and remember that they are human. We have no idea what any individual’s background is, whether a neighbor or a homeless individual hanging out at the Salvation Army shelter. But we all have this basic human need to live in relationship with each other. The best thing we can do is to value the life of another human and to love them for who they are.”

Each year, Augusta-Richmond County registers approximately 300 homeless people during the city’s annual point-in-time visual count of homeless individuals, which is submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of August 2018, Augusta Housing and Community Development estimates that more than 700 people are homeless in Augusta. More specific data show Richmond County schools identified 284 homeless students in 2017 and 258 in 2018; Columbia County identified 385 homeless students in 2017 and 312 last year.

According to Canning, the numbers don’t necessarily give an accurate scope of the problem because the homeless are a transient community by nature and the count is visual, at just one point in time. On average, in cities across the country, the homeless demographic tends to stay within a ratio of the general population size. Over the past year, however, residents may have noticed an “increase” in homelessness in downtown Augusta. “We’re seeing that the homeless are more visible due to the increased development downtown and lack of places for them to seek out their own shelter,” said Angela Collins, community impact director at United Way of the CSRA. “We know that positive changes are happening in Augusta and that the economy is strong, but [the development] is putting homelessness at the forefront.”

Regardless of optics, homelessness continues to be a significant problem, in part because our approach, as a society, needs to change. “We recognize what we are currently doing is not helping win the war against poverty. We’re not making a significant dent in the homeless population in the long term,” said Canning. Typically, organizations – including the Salvation Army – have tended to focus on poverty at the individual level (i.e., What are a person’s needs tonight, tomorrow, next week?). “What we fail to address adequately are the three other causes of poverty: community conditions, exploitation, and economic and governmental policies.”

That’s why the Salvation Army is rolling out a new program called Pathway of Hope, which has been implemented in other cities and is based on a comprehensive strategy that addresses not only the individual’s choices and behavior but also assesses the other three causes that may be behind their situation. In October, the Salvation Army hosted a seminar to introduce the program’s framework and prompt business owners and members of the community to recognize the seemingly small things that we can do in our daily lives to minimize the impact of poverty in our city.

Pathway of Hope hinges on a class called “Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ by World,” which will meet for the first time in Augusta this January. “We will start to learn about the community through the eyes of individuals in poverty [who are taking the class],” said Canning. The opinions and concerns expressed in class will be presented to a steering committee representing many sectors of Augusta, from government to corporations to small businesses.

If, for example, the class attendees report that they are having trouble keeping jobs due to lack of evening public transit to work night shifts, the steering committee would then investigate ways to actively work on improving transportation. “When we listen to what they say and take it back to people of influence in our community, it creates this cycle of hope,” said Canning. “When they see individuals of influence listen to what they say and take action on it, when they see people fighting for something they said mattered in this class, they start to get more involved in the process. We see a new spark of hope in the people of influence as well. They see that the homeless want to get ahead and want to make a difference. Hope is what drives any community – tomorrow can be better than today.” 

Of course, there is still a need for immediately connecting with impoverished individuals and alleviating their struggles in the moment. Golden Harvest Food Bank’s Master’s Table Soup Kitchen serves a hot lunch to more than 325 hungry people every day, 365 days per year in downtown Augusta. Contrary to what many may think, the majority of guests at the master’s table are not homeless.  According to Christina Alexander, communications coordinator at Golden Harvest, there are “a lot of people who exist in a marginal area,” where they are struggling due to job loss or a major healthcare episode. These families often have to decide between going hungry or missing rent – to avoid both, many decide to put the money towards ensuring stable housing and then go to the master’s table for meals.    

“We serve people who might be homeless if they couldn’t come to us,” said Alexander. “The master’s table is also our foothold into the homeless community and our foothold into downtown Augusta. For us, the master’s table represents a place where we can show them some comfort and help with extended needs. We can start to put them in contact with social services.”

The 6,200-square-foot master’s table facility features, in addition to a state-of-the art kitchen, prayer rooms, a courtyard, and an organic community garden – spaces that connect volunteers and guests alike and encourage a supportive, hopeful environment. “We’re trying to inspire healthy change one life at a time,” Alexander said. It’s spaces like these that – should you elect to volunteer for the master’s table or Pathway of Hope – will take you out of your comfort zone to discover something much greater about yourself, our community, and the human spirit.

Article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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