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For many, downtown rebirth at odds with ‘homelessness’

Larry Scott had his shoes off as he looked at the gurgling fountain that serves as a centerpiece for downtown Macon. His socks were white and clean, like his T-shirt. He had a cane and a plastic grocery bag full of ... something.

As he and four others sat around the park at the intersection of Third and Cherry streets, Scott said he’s not homeless. But he wasn’t surprised to be asked.

“You can look in a person’s eyes and you can tell what they think about you,” he said. “If I were a white man, what would the perception be then?”

A few minutes later, a white man walked by. He had a bushy beard and a rolling cart of luggage. He had a brown bag slung on his shoulder and a garbage bag full of things, too.

He wore two hats on his head. He’d had lunch two hours earlier at Macon Outreach, a downtown ministry to feed the homeless. Now he looked for passing traffic, crossed the street and walked down Cherry Street, past downtown’s two newest businesses.

For years, Macon’s business and political leaders have worked to transition downtown from a fading regional shopping destination to a place to live, eat, work and play.

There’s friction between those efforts and the city’s homeless presence, but downtown’s “homelessness” problem isn’t just about homelessness.

There are the drug users who have a place to go at night but who sit on sidewalk benches during the day, drinking malt liquor and sometimes fighting among themselves.

There are the mentally ill who have conversations with no one on street curbs. Many of them are homeless, but not all. There are the elderly and disabled people who live in the Dempsey Apartments, across from the fountain.

There is perception, born of whatever prejudices a person may carry. Crime statistics from the Macon Police Department show downtown to be as safe, or safer, than most other patrol zones in the city.

But when there are destitute-looking people sitting on a park bench, the facts lose some power.

“It’s a perception of ‘it’s not safe,’ ” said Don Bivings, co-owner of Market City Cafe at the corner of Cherry and Third streets. “We live downtown. I walk the dogs at night.”

“Most of them, if you take the time to talk to them, they’re not bad people,” Macon Police Chief Mike Burns said. “But a lot of them do have mental issues.”

Patrick McConnell patrols downtown Macon on foot for Citywatch, a neighborhood watch program of sorts for the area. He’s been doing this since April, and he said he’s “never seen a homeless person accost another person who isn’t homeless.”

An anti-panhandling ordinance passed in 2007 seems to have helped cut down on another problem: aggressive begging downtown. But the homeless themselves remain. And some of them get loud, get in fights, smoke crack or use downtown alleys as restrooms.

WHY DOWNTOWN?

What is it that draws destitute people downtown?

There are the interstates, which cross near Spring Street. There’s the Ocmulgee River just outside downtown and the undersides of bridges that turn into makeshift camps. There’s the Greyhound bus station on Spring Street. There’s the jail on Oglethorpe Street and the probation office downtown.

And all the services for homeless people, all so close to the central business district, are like “a magnet,” Bivings said.

The most recent head count classified 381 people as homeless in Macon, and 117 of them didn’t have shelter at night, according to Phillip Banze, who works on homelessness issues in Macon through Americorps, a federally funded program.

Some of them are like Brenda. She had lunch Thursday at Macon Outreach and spooned runny white rice into a plastic bag for later.

Then she was on Cherry Street drinking from a 24-ounce can in a brown paper bag. A handful of outfits spilled out of a garbage bag on the sidewalk bench beside her, and there were four men sitting quietly on other benches just up the street.

She checked her hair in the dull reflection of a gold-colored serving plate, called Macon “a living nightmare,” then asked a random woman for a cigarette.

Brenda, who would not give her last name, said she’s a homeless accountant. She sleeps at her sister’s place. Asked why she and others seated on sidewalk benches nearby hang out downtown, she said the area is “like a center point for Macon.”

“This is where they congregate,” she says. “I have no idea.”

But downtown is a ready place to get something to eat. More than 2,000 free meals get handed out downtown each week, if you include the Salvation Army rescue mission on the end of downtown, just past the jail.

Mulberry United Methodist Church’s Macon Outreach, just blocks from the fountain, serves 150 to 200 hot meals a day, Monday through Friday, center director Johnny Hathcock said.

The Salvation Army’s rescue mission serves another 150 or so each day, mostly to residents who spend the night at the mission. Loaves and Fishes on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard serves meals, too. Smaller groups often give out sandwiches — and a serving of the Gospel.

“This is good, but it has its disadvantages,” said Waverly Glover, a man with a backpack who was eating lunch at Macon Outreach last month. “It can make you lazy. You know you got this. You don’t have to save money for lunch today.”

There are homeless people downtown because it’s a natural gathering place, Glover said. But “really the reason,” he said, is that “downtown they have people like you. ... There’s access to wealth.”

LOTS OF GROUPS INVOLVED

Fighting homelessness is a multimillion-dollar effort in Bibb County, and much of that effort is based downtown.

There are 23 organizations listed in the Macon Coalition to End Homelessness, and even that tally doesn’t fully account for the groups working on the issue.

A state database shows more than $2.3 million in government “homeless assistance” grants for Bibb groups since 2006. That’s three times more than what goes to the six counties surrounding Bibb combined.

Most of the money goes to River Edge Behavioral Health Center, located on Emery Highway. River Edge helps people with addiction and mental illness.

There’s $733,000 more in taxpayer grants listed in the database to provide housing and services to people with HIV, a disease that can be prevalent in the homeless community. An additional $541,300 in federal stimulus dollars is being spread around now to fight homelessness in the Macon area.

The Bibb County jail spends about $3.6 million to house and treat mentally ill people, many of which Sheriff Jerry Modena says would be better off in a clinical setting, not a jail.

Of all the downtown services for the poor, Macon Outreach is perhaps most visible because it’s a block away from the courthouse. There has been some pressure to move the operation, but Mulberry Street United Methodist Church plans to keep that ministry in place, Hathcock said.

The center recently started Ready Set Go, which holds two-hour classes Monday at 9 a.m. to help people get jobs. The program started with 16 participants and 10 graduated, Hathcock said. The second class is under way and about 14 people attended the initial orientation.

The church also bought the former Cherio liquor store building on Walnut Street and wants to put an employment center there, Hathcock said. There is also talk of putting the center’s guests, as they’re referred to, to work cleaning up the downtown streets.

WOULD DAY SHELTER HELP?

Though downtown business owners said the evidence of poverty and homelessness remains a problem downtown, the area seems to be growing.

Loft apartments downtown stay more than 90 percent rented, according to NewTown Macon, a downtown improvement organization. When Ford, whose NewTown organization is working to improve downtown, ticks off the latest changes, it takes awhile.

There are two new coffee shop/restaurants on Cherry Street. There’s a new men’s clothing store. A new tenant has been found for the former Color’s on Cherry shop. A new bar called Bottom’s Up has opened on Cherry Street, the Capital City Bank headquarters is almost done, negotiations are under way to get new tenants at the former Liz Reed’s music hall, and Secure Health plans to move its headquarters — and 60 jobs — from Arkwright Road to the downtown area.

Mayor Robert Reichert recently said the way to address poverty and homelessness downtown is to wade in among it. If more people and businesses come downtown, the poor, mentally ill and homeless fade into the background by percentage, he said.

Several business owners said they agree with that, but they see a Catch-22 in this strategy: If some people don’t want to come downtown because of homelessness, it’s harder to change the percentages.

Lately, the concept of a homeless day shelter has gained momentum. At its simplest, this would be an air-conditioned building away from the central business district with a television and supervision.

More ambitious plans call for a one-stop shop for homeless services: a place to get off the streets during the day, a place to shower, a place to get new clothes and a place for job training.

There’s no funding attached, but several community leaders and homeless advocates are talking about establishing the center. The Salvation Army already operates a shelter in Macon at its rescue mission. But that’s a place to spend the night. It’s often full, and residents are expected to adhere to a list of 27 rules and guidelines, such as no card playing and random tests for drug or alcohol use.

Not everyone is certain that’s the best solution.

“Ultimatums are not how you get people to quit drinking and quit doing drugs,” said Chad Evans, who helps manage The Rookery restaurant on Cherry Street. “I can tell you that.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.

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