Around 100 residents showed up to a town hall meeting on Tuesday to discuss homelessness in Brunswick and perceived problems caused by The Well, a homeless day shelter on Gloucester Street.
The meeting was organized by the Historic Brunswick Neighborhood Planning Assembly — which represents the area south of Gloucester Street — to discuss the homelessness issue and for give city residents a chance to air their concerns on the record for city officials.
“This isn’t a presentation,” said Kate Sabbe, a member of the NPA. “We aren’t bringing facts. This is for you to talk.”
She noted several developments recently, including the city’s plans to revise ordinances related to camping out in public spaces, homeless shelters, group homes and halfway houses.
She also reminded them of the city and county’s plans to hold an all-day joint summit to discuss the homelessness issue on Oct. 5 at the College of Coastal Georgia’s Southeast Georgia Conference Center.
“People are starting to talk … At the end of the meeting, we want to have a unified voice with which to participate in the homelessness summit,” she said.
Nancy Wilkes grew up on Reynolds Street and lived outside the city limits for a while in her adulthood before moving back to the city. She owns Maggie Mae’s and her son owns the Southern Hanger. She dealt with people who were homeless at their former locations on Gloucester Street across from the Brunswick-Glynn County Library,
Any issues that arose were dealt with amicably, she said, but in recent years interactions have not been so friendly.
“There’s a whole group of people lumped in here,” Wilkes said. “We have drug addicts, we have people who have mental health issues and we have people who are truly combative. We can’t do anything with these people. They have a mind of their own.”
It’s only a matter of time before someone, a homeless person, business owner, employee or citizen, gets hurt, she said.
Jim Shaw, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, said people who live in lower-income neighborhoods typically bear the brunt of the harm as they try to build generational wealth by having their neighborhoods overrun by homelessness and vagrancy.
Robert Griffin, who lives at 1800 G St., lives two-and-a-half blocks from Manna House. He identified two major causes, substance abuse and mental health, that can cause people to completely disengage from society.
The owners of a house next to The Well, James and Susan McCormick, believe the day shelter has attracted droves of people to their home and it has caused endless problems, most of which have arisen in the last four years.
“I’ve had this talk with two mayors, and they keep saying it’s going to get better, but it keeps getting worse,” James McCormick said.
Drugs and related paraphernalia have been disposed of on their property and they have received threats. Sometimes they don’t feel safe on their own front porch without a firearm for protection.
“If we had (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis here, he’d bus them to the St. Simons Island Pier and they’d be gone in a matter of two days,” McCormick said.
Susan McCormick said she and her husband recently moved out and are trying to sell the home, which has already depreciated substantially in value since they moved in. They’re considering legal action against the city or FaithWorks, a nonprofit that operates The Well.
If the city did a better job at enforcing its ordinances, it wouldn’t be a problem, she said.
Ally Moline, who runs Silver Bluff Brewery on Newcastle Street with her husband, said there’s not much police can do.
“Their hands are very much tied,” she said.
“It’s like that in every city, all the way down to Florida.”
After being homeless for a few years in Atlanta, Sterling Sutton said he tried to find a way to help. He worked with nonprofits trying to address the problems people face that lead to homelessness.
Sutton said he encouraged anyone who tried to be kind.
“After realizing something needs to be done about it, I hope we decide the basis of what we do is with compassion, understanding … It’s not them against us. It’s our issue,” he said.
The people who make up the homeless community can be divided into three general groups, said Lucy Albenze, owner of Creative Frameworks Gallery and Antiques on Gloucester Street. They have fallen on hard times and need transitional support or they have mental health issues that make it hard for them to support themselves or they are content with how they are and the trouble they cause.
Dealing with all three will take a thoughtful approach, she said, which may mean sending some back to their communities to find support.
Several other business owners in the downtown area expressed concerns as well, including Chris Gantt, owner of Reid’s Apothecary, Elizabeth Milburn of Victorian Antiques, Debbie Brown of Brown’s Antiques, and Whitney Herndon, owner of Grace Graffiti.
Milburn said she and her staff have been flashed, threatened and stalked for days and Brown said she’s been accosted and had her photo taken by homeless people.
“(Downtown business owners), we see a lot, and it’s when no one else is out on the streets. We see a lot of things we shouldn’t see and it has been different the last four years,” Herndon said.
It was worth noting, she said, how many women who live and work downtown feel unsafe being there at certain times.
“If we want all the investments being made in this downtown to matter … some things have got to change, so keep talking,” Herndon said.
David Herndon, Whitney Herndon’s husband, and Patrick Cawley were both involved in the ministry at some point in their lives.
Herndon said he was involved in getting FaithWorks started and believed in the mission at the time.
“The vision of The Well I was sold … is not what it is right now, and that breaks my heart more than anything. The practices they preach are not in place. There is no rehabilitation going on,” he said.
Cawley works with Hands and Feet, a ministry that helps people with addiction. At least 35% of the homeless in Brunswick are veterans and the majority of those deal with substance abuse issues, which the Golden Isles is not adequately equipped to deal with.
Bo Clark, a candidate for one of the county commission’s at-large seats, asked everyone to contact their city or county commissioners and give their accounts of run-ins with homelessness.
Those who want something done about homelessness can pitch in themselves, said Honey Sparre, who has worked with multiple nonprofits trying to address homelessness, mental health and substance abuse.
“I agree, there are some roughnecks out there, but we need to come together to find a solution. You can’t put it only on the city and county … If you’re going to complain, come up with a solution,” she said.
There’s not one solution, and no one has managed to find a silver bullet, she said. She asked anyone who is interested in helping find solutions to attend a meeting of the Regional Community Collaborative at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at His Ministries on Norwich Street.
City Commissioner Julie Martin said homelessness is not unique to Brunswick, though the issues experienced may be.
“It is affecting us in a very different way,” Martin said. “Things have gotten a lot more personal, I would say. A day doesn’t go by without experiencing this.”
Because Gloucester Street is a state route, Martin said the city had little control over The Well’s opening. She said FaithWorks intentionally “watered down” its services to avoid having to go before city officials to get approval to open.