After complaints from residents, Macon police Wednesday went after homeless people who pitch tents along the Ocmulgee river walk and live under bridges near downtown to try to redirect them to the city’s already limited shelter facilities.
Officers assigned to the 1st Precinct and employees with the city’s Public Works Department targeted abandoned belongings and people living under the Interstate 16 overpass at Spring Street, along the river embankment below Pierce Avenue and at the railroad right of way near the entrance to Central City Park at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Sgt. Willie Brown said while homelessness along the river appears to be down in recent years, authorities want to increase awareness of services available for people who need help finding shower and laundry facilities, as well as medical and prescription medicine programs, hot meals and clothing.
Melvin Hibbler, assistant men’s director at the Macon Rescue Mission outreach center, was on hand to provide information about substance-abuse treatment and 24-hour residency.
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“Longer term, we are full at the present time but we try to help in other areas,” Hibbler said. “If they don’t really know about the services that are available to them, now would be a good time to learn.”
The Rescue Mission, Hibbler said, is one of few facilities that caters to the city’s homeless population, among whom undiagnosed mental health and substance-abuse problems are pervasive.
“We have six-month treatment programming. We try to provide a stable environment to help get them on their feet,” he said. “River Edge provides day services, focusing mainly on mental illness.”
Funding challenges in recent months have caused operational challenges for both centers.
Meanwhile, the tough economy continues to increase the number of homeless men and women and the working poor.
Capt. Guyton Carr, who directed the relocation operation Wednesday, said he didn’t expect any problems from the outdoor dwellers.
“We normally don’t get any sort of resistance because they know they’re not supposed to be there,” said Brown, who is assigned to Carr’s bike patrol.
About 1:30 p.m., the officers turned away two men who were sitting under the I-16 bridge, where they had collected various items to sleep and dress and keep themselves entertained.
Lyrics of poetry by William Butler Yeats and Sylvia Plath were written on the dark concrete walls.
Grimy corners contained discarded litter and clothing, emitting the scent of urine and trash.
The men appeared fine until they were bothered.
Danny Ray Bell, long-haired, older and dressed in worn denim, had his arms full of plastic bags, clothing, sheets, blankets and a foam mattress as he walked south across the river after leaving the I-16 resting place. Officers had identified him as a known panhandler.
On being moved, he said: “I don’t know where I’m going right now. There’s not nothing I can do about them. They’re doing their job, I guess.”
Before long, he had put his belongings in a new location near the banks of the river and returned to stand underneath the bridge to watch the workers clean.
Brown said the effort was meant to inform the city’s homeless residents of safer places to live and resources for assistance, in addition to tidying up areas littered with trash and abandoned belongings.
He said the police department had received anonymous complaints from people, likely “residents who use the sidewalk along Spring Street to get from their homes to the river walk.”
“We’re just trying to provide a service,” he said.
To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.