There’s a city inside the City of Macon.
It’s made of tents strung along the banks of the Ocmulgee River downtown. Homeless people have been bedding down here, largely hidden from view, for years.
But this year, with the movement of people back to the nation’s downtown centers happening alongside the first increase in the nation’s homeless population in seven years, Macon-Bibb government says the tent city has to be pushed back, at least from inside Macon’s Central City Park.
If you want to find a piece of the tent city, walk on top of the river levee in Central City Park. Jennifer Morrow lives on the river side of the levee with her dog, Blue, at the end of a little footpath that ends at a river bluff, not far from new athletic fields and a new skatepark. She hasn’t lived there long.
“My boyfriend's the one who committed suicide by train. Back in September,” she said. “Me and Blue had been homeless ever since.”
Homeless, and she explained, in advanced heart failure. Morrow has a daughter nearby she doesn’t want to burden, so for now it’s sleeping on the river. But Morrow and everyone else here have to clear out by next Monday, December 18. It’s a firm deadline from Macon-Bibb government.
“It sucks because it's right before Christmas,” Morrow said. “And there's not a lot of other places to go that are safe. That's my concern. I don't want to get raped out here.”
Meanwhile, on the day Morrow said she was packing up to leave, Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert and others were celebrating at nearby Luther Williams Field, one of the country’s oldest baseball parks.
“It is pretty easy to get excited about baseball coming back to Luther Williams Field,” Reichert said at the announcement of county funds allocated for the renovation of the aging ballpark. The money is for a new minor league team, the Macon Bacon.
Macon-Bibb County is pumping $2.5 million of Special Local Options Sales Tax money into renovations. It’s part of more than $15 million being spent on big ticket renovations in surrounding Central City Park. As the new amenities draw people back to the park, Reichert said some aren’t comfortable with the homeless living there. There are peewee football games at the foot of the levee, for instance. And there’s the Ocmulgee Heritage trail, the city’s greenway.
“People are having a hard time even using the heritage trail because of the sanitation issues where the homeless don't have facilities to use for the bathroom at all,” he said. “That provides a public health hazard for them and for us.”
Reichert is working with a task force of service providers like the Salvation Army, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and others for a long term solution to the homelessness problem at the park. So far there’s not one, there’s just a deadline.
“On the 18th of Monday, we're going to pick all of your stuff up,” he said.
So where should people go?
“They can endure more cold weather,” Reichert said of the homeless. “They will find a way to find some shelter and they are able to manage to get by in a lot of circumstances where you and I probably couldn't.”
In her office at the Daybreak Center right outside Central City Park, Sister Theresa Sullivan was not so sure.
“Well I would say I'm a nurse, and we all have neurons,” Sullivan said with a laugh. “So we all feel the cold.”
At Daybreak Sister Sullivan and others help people do laundry, get a shower, maybe get a Band-Aid. She said she understands Reichert’s drive to make the park seem safer.
“I have crazy days here, so I go to the park,” she said. “And by walking on that path, and by the water, it calms me down and it helps me to pray, to be close to God.”
But Sister Sullivan also doesn’t want the homeless run out of the park without another option for housing. She is on Reichert’s homelessness task force and they have something new they are ready to try.
“Actually January 25th, we're launching this coordinated housing program with all of us working together with an assessment to try to get people housed,” she said.
It will be one big database of Macon’s homeless population that the agencies on the Mayor’s task force can use together to quickly house people - including the people by the river. But, again, that launches January 25, a full month after the tent city comes down. Sister Theresa said that’s frustrating.
“Yes, so my frustration is not...I understand the mayor's wanting public parks belong to the public,” she said.
That’s not the issue, ultimately.
“I wish we had more time.”