Hundreds filed into the Rome Civic Center on Thanksgiving, hungry men and women looking for a hot meal.
Some were homeless. As they walked past the Rev. Terrell Shields, co-chair of the Love Feast, they explained what brought them to the annual event that feeds the community.
“Loss of job, sometimes divorce,” Shields said. “Sometimes loss of a loved one.”
In cases like that, those who ask for help are pointed in the right direction, whether it’s shelter, a food pantry or something else. Sometimes, though, people have a need, and Shields doesn’t know where to direct them.
In those cases he apologizes and promises to find the appropriate resource.
One problem Shields has found is that Rome and Floyd County don’t have all the resources needed by the homeless. There’s a men’s shelter and a shelter for women. A family shelter closed last year.
Issues like that, and a growing number of homeless downtown, led in 2007 to the creation of the Task Force on Homelessness. A consultant counted the number of homeless in the community, and over the next two years the task force hammered out a 23-point action agenda.
“It is tempting to say that the work of the Task Force has culminated in this plan,” the final document states. “But the fact is, with the completion of the plan, the real work starts. Implementing the action steps outlined here will take the ongoing commitment of the entire community.”
Four years later, and there’s been little movement on the plan. The task force, which once met regularly, hasn’t convened since the plan’s completion.
“Once the plan was drafted, it never took off,” said Bekki Fox, with the city’s Community Development Department. “Someone’s going to have to take the lead role.”
Two surveys completed in 2008 and 2009 put the number of homeless in the community between 200 and 400. Those numbers don’t include those who live without permanent housing, and no formal count has been done since.
According to the plan, solving the homelessness problem was based on the collaboration and coordination of existing resources and the creation of new programs to fill in the gaps.
The task force made 23 action steps it intended to address homelessness in the community. It called for the creation of a Rome/Floyd County Interagency Council on Homelessness, a biannual homeless resource fair and a website, among several other goals.
Once the plan was complete city officials said they didn’t have the staff to implement the plan. Homelessness is a community problem, and city leaders hoped a task force member would take the lead, Fox said.
“But that didn’t happen,” she added.
Many former task force members praised the relationships built because of the board. Allison Trask, executive director of the William S. Davies Homeless Shelter, said task force meetings fostered relationships between the various resource providers.
The meetings, building those relationships, was what Trask found useful — getting everyone around one table to discuss homelessness issues.
“That meeting part needs to be facilitated,” she added.
Salvation Army Capt. Douglas McClure wasn’t here when the task force built its plan, and he hasn’t seen it. He likes the idea of collaborating with other agencies, though he noted his organization isn’t asking for oversight.
McClure has seen agencies work together as a homeless coalition in other communities. He said the city or county is the entity best suited to make such a coalition.
“Does the city want to take on that responsibility?” Fox asked. “I would say they wouldn’t mind hosting it.”
The lack of regular meetings isn’t the only thing that’s missing. Amy Weaver, director of Hospitality House, noted that the action agenda points require money.
“The plan sounds great; it sounds wonderful,” Weaver said. “But there’s no money.”
Resources and the law
Homeless men and women panhandling for money is what typically gets the police involved. People either outright ask for money, or tell a story about a flat tire and needing cash to fix it, said Rome police Capt. Paul Greene.
“But we really don’t have that big an issue with them,” Greene added.
The homeless usually stay out of the public eye, and officers leave them alone unless someone calls to complain about a panhandler. Unless someone’s committing a crime, any encounter an officer has with that person must be consensual. If someone refuses to talk, the officer leaves, Greene said.
“Some people are totally happy to be left alone,” he added.
Police also have limited powers in removing someone who’s homeless from someone else’s land. According to Greene, a landowner must first complain about someone being on his property before he or she is removed. Without that landowner complaint, a posted “no trespassing” sign or a criminal trespass document in hand, officers have little authority.
Sometimes police encounter someone who’s new to the area, and in need of a shelter. In those cases officers direct them to the appropriate spot, or take that person themselves.
The Salvation Army has a 24-bed emergency shelter for men. No is allowed to drink alcohol or take drugs while they stay at the shelter, McClure said.
“We want it to be a safe and secure environment,” McClure added. “Alcohol is a real problem for us.”
Many stay at the Salvation Army’s shelter a few months and then go to the Davies shelter, McClure said. In turn, the Davies shelter helps people transition into apartments.
Davies also requires that its residents be drug and alcohol free. The 15-bed shelter provides bus passes, job lists, a computer lab and volunteer opportunities.
“Pretty much anything they need from when they come to us to when they move to an apartment,” Trask said.
Davies also is a men’s only facility, though it has plans for a new shelter that would house women separately.
Transitioning people from Davies into apartments accomplishes one of the task force’s action agenda points. The creation of a new Davies shelter that houses men and women will complete another.
“Individually, as agencies, some of us are taking those on,” Trask said.
She doesn’t see the Davies shelter as competing with other agencies such as the Salvation Army and Hospitality House. Trask knows McClure and Weaver, and speaks with them about the services they provide.
Trask said having discussions like that during quarterly meetings, much like the former task force had, would help the agencies provide better services and the homeless population they serve.
“It’s still a problem,” Fox said of homelessness. “There’s no doubt.”