The remains of the people who once lived in the East President Street homeless camp scattered the ground under the Truman Parkway ramp before it was last cleared Thursday.
A tattered copy of the Robin Hood tales lay open on a waterlogged page, its spine broken beyond repair. A miniature toy set complete with bottles of French mustard sat among discarded shoes and combs. Echoes of logs blackened by a campfire and empty cans. Graffiti labeled the area as “Juggalo Valley”, warning Nazis to stay away. Burn marks licked the walkway supports, evidence of the Tire fire on October 1 which prompted city leaders to clear camps on both sides of East President Street.
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The camp across the street – under the Truman Parkway ramp north of East President Street – was one of the most visible markers of The homelessness crisis in Savannah. It was removed on Thursday by an interagency team of police, social workers, religious clergy and contractors with heavy machinery. The camp has been plagued by security issues, drug abuse and health issues for years. A tire fire on October 1 raised “serious public safety concerns” from officials, leading to the the city’s decision to empty the camp.
“For a long time this camp and President Street has really been the face of homelessness in Savannah because it’s the most visible,” Reverend Michael said. Chaney, an episcopal minister who runs a ministry and congregation for the homeless.
“This is the camp people see when they drive into town from the islands, and this is the camp our tourists see when they leave the city center to get to Tybee,” Chaney added. “And it seems like this camp has been an embarrassment to Savannah, and there have been some people who want – and have wanted – this to go away.”
The camp under the underpass consisted of about 40 people, according to Mayor Van Johnson, who discussed the matter at his weekly press conference. The camp residents were given two weeks to move and received help and advice from the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless and local shelters.
“They are people, and so we’re going to respect their dignity, we’re going to respect their humanity, and we’re going to treat them with respect,” Johnson said. “We don’t throw anyone.”
“A chance to get out of homelessness”
Chaney, pastor of Epiphany Episcopal Church and St. Joseph Congregation, said the city has done everything possible to help displaced people use the eviction as a chance to get out of homelessness.
Thirty beds have been opened for residents of the Salvation Army camp and Union Mission Emergency Shelterbut not everyone accepted the city’s offer.
“Not everyone can go to a shelter. Some people who are active drug addicts can’t go there and leave cold turkey to move to a shelter. There are certain criminal records that prevent them from going to a shelter There are some people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) coming out of prison or the military who don’t want to go to a shelter,” Chaney explained.
The Red Cross has provided storage space for personal effects, Renegade Paw Rescue took care of the pets’ needs, and the City of Savannah promised to buy a bus ticket for affected residents if they could prove they were in contact with their families.
The Savannah Morning News saw at least a dozen people leave the camp before the 1 p.m. moving deadline. They towed personal effects in wagons, tote bags, pickup trucks and a U-Haul. A Savannah police officer told reporters to leave the public right-of-way in front of the camp while we tried to take pictures and observe the clearing. The officer said the sidewalk was government property.
As of 2:20 p.m., a dozen people remained at the camp as dozens of police and emergency personnel swarmed the camp. Heavy machinery kicked up dirt and piles of debris left behind. Items were tagged in evidence bags, a man with a broken foot was loaded onto a stretcher before leaving in an SPD van and others left with the homeless authority.
The camp has been cleared at least twice before, but Johnson said the city is taking steps to “secure and clear” the area for future monitoring so the camp does not resume.
4,600 people are left homeless every night
While homeless camps can breed crime and addiction, it’s also a tool homeless people use to build community, Chaney said.
“There are a lot of people creating a community for safety. And you say to someone, ‘Your community is over,’ people can resist that,” he said. “So there has been some pushback.”
According to the Homeless Authority, there are at least 4,600 homeless people every night in Chatham County, about 1,000 of whom are chronically homeless.
Long-term solutions to solving the homelessness crisis will require intensive funding for housing programs, in which the city has invested millions of dollars in recent years. But rising housing costs have further aggravated the already steep rise in homelessness.
“I was very moved by the reaction from the city manager, the Red Cross and the Homeless Authority… Everyone came together,” Chaney said. “This is a crisis, we need to go into crisis mode. And we also need to recognize that we need a long-term solution to the affordable housing problem.”
Zoe is Savannah Morning News’ investigative reporter. Find her at [email protected], @zoenicholson_ on Twitter and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.