Little by little, the four tiny notepads in the back of the room began filling up with the names of more than 25 Rome residents willing to serve on subcommittees of the Homelessness Task Force 2019 Thursday.
And bit by tiny bit, the more than 50 people in The Well room at West Rome Baptist Church started to chew on the “overwhelming” task of taking on the “elephant” that is Rome’s homelessness issue.
It was the second meeting of the Task Force born less than two months ago out of a concern over a proposed city ordinance designed to better define procedures for handling “urban camping” and aggressive panhandling when public safety personnel are called to take action.
One voice that has been missing from the effort has been that of a homeless person. During Thursday’s 90-minute gathering, City Commissioner Sundai Stevenson, who has worked in low-income public housing for the past 13 years, read a letter from a man who used to be homeless and could not attend the meeting.
“Arrests of the homeless is not the best solution,” Napoleon Fielder III wrote. “It would only be a quick fix that would only exacerbate our already-existing problem of overcrowding in our jail system.”
Fielder said he’d like to see the separate silos that are area nonprofits work under one umbrella to provide the services a homeless person needs when they find themselves breaking laws they did not intend to violate.
“This may not be the answer for everyone, but jail is not the answer for anyone,” Fielder wrote.
Working together and having some sort of central location where the homeless could go for services — or at least “triage” — became a running theme during the meeting.
Davies Shelters Director Devon Smyth told the group she does not believe local nonprofits are, in fact, still keeping to their own silos as they once were.
“The fact that we’re all in this room today means we’re working together. I’m on the phone all the time with any number of these people in the room,” said Smyth, who later volunteered to help organize the four subcommittees being formed. “We are working hard across agency lines because it matters. When I left seven years ago there were distinct silos and it doesn’t mean they’re eliminated now, but when I came back a few years ago, some of those walls have come down for the greater good.”
Figuring out a way to house more homeless people in places such as the abandoned NW Georgia Regional Hospital or in rundown motels on Martha Berry Highway also became a focus of the discussion around resources needed.
It was the closing of the hospital in 2011 that led to the influx of citizens suffering from mental health issues, which ultimately contributed to the rise in homelessness in the community, many feel. Today that building is costing the state about $1.2 million per year just to maintain on top of the nearly $4 million in debt bond, according to City Commissioner Craig McDaniel, a commercial real estate agent.
“That’s pure old dirty politics to get that done,” McDaniel said of convincing state and possibly federal lawmakers to release the building to the city of Rome.
McDaniel, the listing agent on the Cottis Inn on Martha Berry that is on the market for about $1.3 million, told the group that in order to use local hotels and motels for the homeless, they would have to first get a handle on sex and drug trafficking taking place in those areas.
And, of course, there is the issue of cost. Where would the money come from to purchase vacant homes and buildings?
Community Development Block Grants cannot be used to build shelters and the $400,000 currently available from such funding sources is eaten up quickly by various smaller projects, said Community Development Director Bekki Fox.
“We run a robust rehabilitation program for owner-occupied low-income residents, which without our funding, those houses are going to fall into further blight and disrepair,” said Fox, who began the Task Force meeting with a PowerPoint overview of the 2009 homelessness plan that later fell by the wayside during the recession. “Four hundred thousand is just not a lot of money.”
The waiting list for public housing is 1,000 people deep, according to Alvin Jackson of the Northwest Georgia Housing Authority.
“I’m amazed by some of the dilapidated housing that I see,” Jackson said. “Go over to 15th Street. I’ve got a small business over there. The street is falling apart, the street lights don’t work. You’ve got seven, eight, nine vacant properties there that could be refurbished. Matter of fact, I know some homeless people who live in those houses now with no water and no lights. I don’t know how they survive.”
After all was said and done, however, many of those attending the meeting were energized enough to write their names on those little yellow pads to work on “Homelessness & Mental Illness/Addiction,” “Long-Term Homelessness,” “Short-Term Homelessness” and “Affordable Housing.”
“We’re all blessed to live in a community with so much to offer,” City Manager Sammy Rich said before setting the next meeting for Oct. 24 at 9:30 a.m. at the same venue.