Homelessness and complaints about animal control were front and center during Tuesday’s Augusta Commission meeting.
Danielle Ringgold, representing Augusta/CSRA Democratic Socialists of America, said charitable giving has increased in the community but there is a serious lack of homeless shelters.
“It took the life of Willie Walker who froze to death Jan. 21,” she said.
She said she’d reached out to commissioners Jan. 22, and to Sheriff Richard Roundtree Dec. 10, but had not heard back from the sheriff. However, Roundtree’s Chief Deputy Pat Clayton was present at the meeting to explain the situation officers often face in dealing with the homeless population.
Ringgold said $10 million had been proposed for a shelter in the upcoming SPLOST 8 package but it had been rescinded in favor of a water park.
“I think Augusta should be a great place to visit and to live,” she said.
Ringgold asked Mayor Hardie Davis and commissioners to form a committee of elected officials and community members to address the problem.
“I know if we can pull together. we can end homelessness in Augusta,” she said.
Martinez resident Kiara Bouyea also spoke of her compassion about people dying on the streets when there is empty housing.
“I think we all should start to saving lives in our community,” she said.
Clayton said the first thing he wanted to address was an earlier assertion that deputies take items from homeless people and throw them away.
“We go into areas and put people on notice,” he said. “DOT directs that we go in and remove the homeless from under bridges. We don’t just go in without notice and take people’s items and throw them away.”
In March of 2017, a fire under a bridge on I-85 in Atlanta started by material a homeless person had stored there caught fire and caused the bridge to collapse.
Clayton said sheriff’s office personnel work with various agencies, such as the Marion Barnes Center, the Salvation Army and others to help the homeless. He said they are able to get food and clothing on a day-to-day basis, but many are alcohol or drug dependent or mentally ill, sometimes all three.
“In the day, they’re panhandling,” he said. “They’re using that to buy drugs and alcohol.”
Commissioner Ben Hasan said the commission needs to find a way to tackle homelessness and nominated commissioners Dennis Williams and Jordan Johnson to co-chair a task force to see what the city can do to decrease homelessness.
Johnson asked Clayton if it’s apparent someone is mentally ill what steps can be taken to help that person.
“Mental illness, we can’t make them go,” he said. “We have Serenity and DHS to try to get them to get treatment. It’s hard to get people with mental illness or alcohol or drug abuse to avail themselves of help. They have to agree to not use drugs or alcohol to be in a program.”
Commissioner John Clarke said the homeless have services available to them and are panhandling to buy drugs or alcohol.
“Would you not agree that when people make themselves feel good by giving panhandlers money, they’re not helping, but enabling?” Clarke asked.
“I absolutely agree with that,” Clayton said, adding that one officer reported finding $469 on one panhandler.
“Some are professional panhandlers,” he said. “My lieutenant out in Zone 1 said people come in on a train because it’s a good area.
Johnson called for empathy for homeless people.
“It is wrong for somebody to die on our streets,” he said. “It is wrong for somebody to have to sleep in their car because they do not have heat in their homes.”
Commissioners unanimously approved creating the task force Hasan proposed.
Also Tuesday, Augusta Animal Services came in for strong criticism by former Commissioner Marion Williams and sitting commissioners as well.
Williams said a member of his church, Friendship Baptist Church, was attacked by a dog Jan. 8, and seriously injured. The dog attacked her as she was taking her garbage can out to the street. She fell and broke her arm, and the dog tore her clothes and bit her all over before a neighbor intervened. She was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and has undergone a series of rabies shots.
Animal control was called and brought a trap out to catch the offending animal but trapped another dog instead.
“I didn’t know anything about it until the 10th of January,” Williams said. “I got a call that the dog had been in the trap from Thursday night until Sunday morning. No one came by to check the trap.”
Williams said the victim called the sheriff’s department four or five times, and they told her they didn’t have anybody who could help.
He finally got through to animal control, and someone came out and got the trap.
“We just gave animal control a raise,” he said. “We just gave the sheriff a raise. The dog stayed in the trap two-and-half or three days whining in her yard. And she couldn’t get anybody to come out and check on the trap.”
City Administrator Odie Donald said he’d follow up with Williams after the meeting.
“I think we made some updates to the system failure,” he said.
Clarke said it was no secret he had a problem with animal control.
“When you call and ask a question, you get no answer,” he said.
More should be done about dogs running the streets,” Clarke said.
“We need a little more oversight,” he said. “Animal services is floundering. I don’t think animal services is doing their job.”
Commissioner Brandon Garrett said he concurred with Clarke’s comments.
“I get the calls over and over again about animals. They reach out to us. We try to help, and the non-commital is disturbing.”
In other action, Commissioner Catherine McKnight wanted commissioners to begin meeting in person in commission chamber on March 1, but after a lengthy discussion, the board agreed to postpone in-person meetings until the Covid-19 numbers were down for two consecutive weeks.
Also Tuesday, commissioners appointed Mason McKnight IV to the Augusta Aviation Commission; Thomas M. Dozier III to the General Aviation Commission (Daniel Field); and Tara Copway to the Historic Preservation Commission representing District 3.
Commissioners also appointed Stephen King to the Downtown Development Authority, but six commissioners blocked the appointment of Von Pouncey to the DDA board.