Grant Blankenship, GPB News
The chill wind blew June O’Neal’s pink scarf as she picked her way through rubble, some left over from a forcibly dismantled homeless camp, toward a sizable campfire, under a bridge, by the Ocmulgee River.
Looking down the muddy slope, she shouts at the shadows you could only vaguely make out by the fire.
“Hello! Will you come in with us!”
By “come in with us” she meant into a shelter, one set up especially for the coldest days of the year, like tonight when the forecast called for temperatures in the teens.
The number of people unhoused and living on the street in Georgia spiked by some 20% between 2021 and 2022. That’s according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That’s apparent in Macon, too. It’s been exacerbated by recent flipping back and forth by the local Salvation Army shelter on whether or not it would let single adults — as opposed to single parents with kids — inside its shelter. Now it will allow single adults in on cold nights again.
O’Neal is betting some people don’t know that.
“Please! I’ll talk you in my car,” O’Neal pleads to the people around the fire.
O’Neal heads the local coalition of homeless service providers. Her job for decades has been working with at-risk and often homeless kids. Tonight she’s packed her SUV with blankets and winter coats to give away in the usual spots for rough sleepers, who don’t want to talk to her.
“They’re gonna stay under that bridge, aren’t they?” she said as she walked away. “You have to respect that.”
Many in Macon still remember the two men who froze to death on Christmas Eve a few years ago. That was the impetus for a new shelter now run by the United Way. So, there is more than enough cold weather shelter space.
O’Neal says now the struggle is getting people to those beds.
“We’re doing everything we know to do,” she said. “We’ve told everyone we know to tell. We’ve put the word out in all the usual places.”
A young man holds a jacket June O’Neal gave him. But he declined the head of the Mentors Project of Bibb County’s offer for shelter even in 20 degree cold.
Credit: Grant Blankenship / GPB News
Jake Hall of the United Way of Central Georgia said the group did succeed in getting tens of people in motel rooms and the United Way’s shelter ahead of this most recent cold snap.
Still, it wasn’t hard for June O’Neal to find people still in line to rough it — like the young man she met a little later behind a fast food drive through.
“Question: How cold is it supposed to be if y’all are worried like that?” he asked O’Neal after she offered her some of the blankets and jackets packed into her SUV.
“It’s already 30.” O’Neal responded.
He took a jacket with a hand with open wounds on the knuckles. He said no to a blanket and a bed.
“Hey, God bless you, ma’am,” he said in parting.
A young man with wounds on his hands and face takes a jacket. An older man does, too.
But after a last check at another spot, no one gets in O’Neal’s car.
“I know. And it broke my heart,” she said.
But, she said, it’s predictable.
“Some of them don’t want to be in a congregant setting,” she said. “Some of them have mental health issues.”
“They desperately need help,” she said.
That’s why she’ll be out again another night, offering help in the cold.
This story comes to the Macon Report through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.