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Local efforts underway to help homeless people recover

Brunswick News - 9/6/2022

Sep. 6—Editor's Note: This news article is the last of four that looks at the homeless situation in downtown Brunswick. Previous articles ran in the Friday, Weekend and Monday editions of The News.

Homelessness in the Golden Isles is a problem that won't be solved without compassion and, like anything else, funding, say advocates and government officials.

It is typically a convergence of several issues, says Honey Sparre. She's been very close to the issue for decades, having worked with FaithWorks and Coastal Community Health in the past.

Some are perfectly content being homeless, she says, and some are inclined toward criminality, but the majority of people on the street are there because they hit a rough patch in life or are in a bad place mentally. The problems are plain to see for anyone who looks, she said: a lack of access or ability to take advantage of mental health care, education and skills training, and housing they can afford.

The Well, a homeless day shelter in downtown Brunswick, offers services designed to help people in the moment, said the Rev. Wright Culpepper, executive director of FaithWorks and pastor at First United Methodist Church. Whether that help will improve their situation long-term is largely dependent on the person.

"What people see on the streets has very little to do with what happens inside The Well. There are transformational things that happen with those who are acutely homeless," he said. "Most are acute: Someone has found themselves in a bad place or a bad time. Most can get their feet back up under them, but it takes a while. It helps to be able to take care of their basic needs. Very often they can turn things around very quickly."

What most people see day to day are the chronically homeless, he said.

"They are the same people who are seen regularly at the jail and the courthouse and at Gateway (Behavioral Health Services) and the emergency room," Culpepper said. "The technical term for them is 'familiar faces,' people who cycle through the various institutions."

An important part of getting people off the streets and into permanent homes is breaking that cycle by getting them the help they need to live normal lives and the biggest obstacle to that is mental health, according to mental health advocate Nora Lott Haynes.

Haynes ran in the Republican primary earlier this year for Glynn County's state Senate seat on a platform of improving the state's mental health care, but her experience goes back much further. She's earned multiple degrees in special education, worked as a special education educator and mental health case management consultant, and conducted research on the issues of mental health and education.

"People are concerned about the number of homeless people in Brunswick, I understand, but I think that's true everywhere," Haynes said.

She cited statistics indicating one in five people have mental illness and one in 17 have a serious and persistent mental illness, and a percentage of those have some form of substance abuse disorder. It's unsurprising that a percentage of those would need help coping with the demands of independent life, she said.

A person typically needs four things to recover from severe mental illness and live what most would consider a normal life, she said: adequate treatment; safe and appropriate housing, as some can't live alone and either need caretakers or group housing; a meaningful day or some way to feel like they're contributing to their own well-being or that of society; and a good grasp of how to use modern technology.

Georgia doesn't lack agencies and institutions with the knowledge and ability to help people with these things, but what it does lack is a communication network between them making sure needs are met.

"In our society, all these people interface with different agencies whether it's (the Department of Family and Child Services) for food stamps or Gateway or the courts," Haynes said. "There's 80-something state agencies and these people interface with these agencies all the time, but they don't talk to each other."

Getting an individual the help he or she needs first requires knowledge of what they need help with, Haynes said. Improving communication between state institutions with which homeless people frequently make contact will create profiles that will provide law enforcement, health care workers and caseworkers such information.

Efforts are underway to create such networks, Haynes said, and a recent bill, the Mental Health Parity Act, will go a long way toward supporting those efforts.

"It made parity with something passed in 2008 by the feds," Haynes said. "If you're going to cover physical health you have to cover mental health as well. Georgia and 30-plus other states didn't."

It will take time for all the pieces to be put into place, however. Part of the bill calls for "assisted outpatient treatment" programs, which function similarly to court-mandated civil commitments. They effectively force people to comply with mental health treatments as prescribed by a doctor, according to the bill.

This will address one of the low-hanging fruit among the homeless, Haynes said: People who don't want to get treatment or those who find it earlier to get a hold of illegal drugs to cope with their illness.

Georgia ranked last in the number of providers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and caseworkers, and under the bill, the state may pay off student loans for people going to school to enter those fields, she said.

Another helpful aspect of the bill is putting more money into accountability courts.

"We want all mentally ill people on the civil side, not the criminal side," Haynes said.

Addressing the "huge void of professional social workers" in Georgia will be essential, Culpepper said.

"It's hard to get licensed as a clinical social worker. There's a lot of difficulties," he said. "Part of our approach is to encourage programs at the college, Golden Isles College and Career Academy, and anywhere else where someone can be trained to handle someone having a mental health crisis and begin to build a larger body of workers to address needs."

Another hurdle is obtaining identification. Getting things like birth certificates takes time if someone is from out of town, and in many cases that's all one might have.

It's one issue the Glynn County Sheriff's Office hopes to help with, she said. Personnel there are working on a program to issue state identification to people lacking any at the Glynn County Detention Center, which hopefully will give them a chance to break the cycle of recidivism.

"There's more trying to get help than are not. Eighty percent of those who frequent The Well daily have income but less than $1,000 a month," Sparre says. "Even if they have ID, sometimes they can't afford to live anywhere."

Sparre said Brunswick has some of the most public housing per capita in the state, and that by prioritizing locals, the Brunswick Housing Authority could make a difference in getting people off the street.

"Federal guidelines say we cannot discriminate for that reason," said William Kitts, chairman of the housing authority.

That doesn't mean the BHA is sitting on its hands, however. Kitts said the authority's current goal is to shift from housing people long-term into a transitional role, giving someone a low-cost place to live while they get job training and eventually enter the workforce and get their own home.

Kitts said the authority has several irons in the fire, including an agreement with WorkSource Coastal Georgia to get people in public housing into jobs, even if they're temporary, and pending agreements with the Brunswick Job Corps Center and a home ownership counseling nonprofit.

Ideally, these efforts will result in a boost to the area's workforce.

"If they don't have the skills, we're actively putting them into programs. We can't force them, but (are) promoting as much as can to get them into skills programs," Kitts said. "... My goal is to become the leading provider to low to moderate income individuals in Georgia, and grow the housing authority to become an economic engine for house jurisdiction."

A total of 90 transitional tiny houses for the homeless — 60 at Hand-in-Hand's Pete Correll Commons, slated for completion this year, and 30 specifically for veterans at the Golden Isles Veterans Village — will help but not solve the problem.

The 2022 Point-In-Time count, conducted in February by several organizations, found 217 people lived unsheltered — without somewhere to stay at night on average. Sparre said based on her experience, the number of homeless in Brunswick on a given night is around 400.

Affordable and public housing will have to fill the gap at some point, she said.

Kitts said his plan would hopefully address this by becoming more transitional. As some get job training and move into their own homes, the housing authority can take more people and help them become self-sustaining. He described the current situation as a full safety net. It's there to help people, but currently full, Kitts said.

For some, even if all the pieces click into place, it won't be enough. Some need to be reminded or taught from scratch how to act around people and on job sites, the importance of hygiene and more. Sparre said she's spoken with some government officials about providing services like these, along with overnight shelters, at the local level, but has had little tangible progress.

"If Glynn County has the will to improve the system or fix the system, we absolutely can," Sparre said. "Is it going to be cheap? No, but it's not cheap the way we're doing it now."


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