On Wednesday, a Georgia Senate committee focused on addressing homelessness heard from a variety of Georgians who have directly experienced living on the streets.

Those who testified came from diverse backgrounds but shared the common experience of homelessness. They described in frank terms the challenges they faced in trying to bounce back.

“A lot of it was due to alcohol and drugs,” said Darlene Adair, explaining why she was homeless for around 20 years. 

Adair now runs her own nonprofit and serves as an advisor to a major Atlanta nonprofit devoted to homelessness. She described being forced into uncomfortable situations just to be able to sleep in a car for a night.   

Adair said that she thought a combination of a housing-first approach and “self-love” among people who are homeless are needed to solve the problem.  

“Join [those] together – we can fix something that will work for everybody,” she said. 

Homelessness has increased partly due to people’s struggles to earn enough to afford housing, Adair added.  

Other people have faced serious mental health struggles that derailed promising life plans. For example, Kellie Bryson, who served in the U.S. Army, became homeless not long after she was discharged and ran out of savings. She said the experience only compounded her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

“I found myself making the streets, parking lots, and parks of Atlanta,” said Bryson. “I lived in a constant state of fight or flight.”  

Bryson said she initially reached out to some government resources for help but after not receiving any, she stopped asking for help. She said youth facing homelessness may distrust adults and lack access to information about resources. 

Bryson now has housing and serves on the Atlanta Youth Action Board, which advises local groups about youth perspectives on homelessness.  

The committee also heard witnesses from rural Georgia, where homelessness is a growing problem.  

“What’s coming to our community is going to be devastating, because we simply have not prepared to mitigate the COVID needs for recovery as needed,” said Sherrell Byrd, founder and executive director of SOWEGA Rising, a Southwest Georgia group focused on organizing to improve local conditions.  

Byrd said increasing housing, utility and food prices are making it difficult for many families to afford their rents or mortgage payments. 

“These are the types of factors that are really impacting the lives of rural Georgians in a way that’s going to cause a serious wave of homelessness,” Byrd said.   

Trista Wiggins, who manages five private apartment complexes in the Albany area, affirmed Byrd’s observations. She may soon have to evict more than 50 families who have not been able to pay their rents.  

“My concern is their families who, through no fault or very little fault of their own, are now facing being evicted from their homes and being homeless,” said Wiggins, who noted that COVID has hurt many families’ earning ability.  

“Not all landlords, I promise, are bad,” Wiggins said. “We want to try and keep these families in their homes.”  

Wiggins and Byrd said some the families they work with have faced problems getting federal COVID rental relief, noting that many faced delays or never received responses. 

This was reiterated by Kelley Saxon of Greater Valdosta United Way, who said families in the Valdosta area also face problems getting rental assistance.  

There are currently around 150 people living without shelter in the Valdosta area and around 600 students in the area who were either unsheltered or living with families in crowded conditions to avoid homelessness, Saxon said.  

“Please don’t forget about us below the [Macon] line down here,” she said. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Rebecca Grapevine

Rebecca Grapevine

Rebecca Grapevine is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Georgia. She has written about public health in both India and the United States, and she holds a doctorate in history from the University...