About 10,174 people.
That’s the estimated number of people in the state of Georgia who found themselves homeless in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Of that number, approximately 3,523 people in Georgia were living on the streets last year without any kind of assistance or emergency shelter.
And some of those individuals were living on Augusta’s streets.
Each year, Augusta-Richmond County registers around 300 homeless people during the city’s annual point-in-time homeless count, which is submitted to HUD.
Many of those people are hungry, scared, hurting and alone.
However, some Augustans don’t even want to look at them or acknowledge that they exist.
Just last month, a film production crew from Florence, S.C., teamed up with the Augusta Film Office to develop a documentary to try to change people’s minds about the homeless.
“The homeless are seen as disposal. They are trash. They are not people. But that’s not true,” said Christian Brunetti, the producer of the documentary. “You throw away trash. You don’t throw away people. And what a lot of people don’t understand is, the homeless have mental health issues. They have drug issues. They have a lot of the same issues that we all have, but they don’t have the resources to get the help they need.”
In order to better shine a light on the enormous challenges that the homeless face each day, Brunetti decided to produce a documentary featuring two men from Florence, S.C., who go “undercover” and spend one week with Augusta’s homeless.
The two men featured in the upcoming documentary set to be completed in June are Bryan Braddock, the executive director of a homeless ministry called House of Hope of the Pee Dee, and Byon McCullough, a street performer and YouTube viral sensation.
“Byon McCullough, who goes by the moniker ‘kNOw CA$H’ on YouTube, has 40 million views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers,” Brunetti said. “But kNOw CA$H is homeless. He doesn’t have a permanent place to live, he doesn’t have a stable source of income, he doesn’t have a stable source of food, but, because of his fame on YouTube, he’s an advocate for other homeless.”
Earlier this year, Braddock and McCullough happened to meet and began sharing stories about one another’s lives.
Soon, the two realized they had a lot more in common than expected, Brunetti explained.
“Their stories are parallel,” Brunetti said. “Brian has four felony convictions. Byon has four felony convictions. They both grew up in Florence. Byon started dealing drugs at 13. Bryan started drinking and doing drugs at 15. They both come from broken homes, but the first 10 to 12 years of their lives they were in church. And they both got arrested for the final time in their early 30s.”
But that’s where both men faced completely different challenges and took separate paths in life, he said.
“Byon went to prison for five years and Bryan was put on probation for 8 years and had to pay $50,000 in restitution,” Brunetti said. “When Byon got out of prison, he decided to clean up his life and it went viral. But because of how YouTube works, he is getting paid pennies on the dollar. He gets like $100 a month from YouTube, and he’s still facing homelessness. While Bryan is the executive director of a homeless ministry.”
This meeting with McCullough opened up Braddock’s eyes to his need to better understand the homeless in his community.
“So they started talking, and Byon wanted to teach Bryan what it’s really like to be homeless,” Brunetti said. “Because, as the executive director of a homeless ministry, Bryan knew how to help the homeless, but he never experienced it himself.”
That’s when Braddock and McCullough agreed to be filmed for a documentary that would focus on them going undercover as homeless men for a full week.
But Braddock knew they couldn’t film in Florence because both men grew up in the community and they realized it would be easy to turn to friends and family for assistance if the week got too rough.
Therefore, Brunetti suggested Augusta as the site for filming the documentary.
“We knew the Augusta Film Office was here because I had worked on a previous project in Augusta,” Brunetti said. “So I called up Steve Cheeks from the Augusta Film Office, and he was 100 percent on board.”
When Cheeks received Brunetti’s call, he couldn’t believe it because he was just discussing a film about Augusta’s homeless population.
“There is a homeless camp behind the Augusta Film Office, and we see it every day,” Cheeks said.
“I have a co-worker who walks out there and interacts and talks with them. And one day, he walked back to the office and he was just so frustrated asking, ‘Why does this have to happen?’ And he said, ‘If we put a camera on it, maybe we can change something.’”
The very next week, Brunetti called asking for the Augusta Film Office’s help in setting up some local interviews with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, local shelters and community agencies, churches and advocates for the homeless.
Cheeks said he was more than happy to help.
“The biggest misconception about homeless people is that they choose to be that way,” Cheeks said. “Nobody chooses to sleep in the cold and rain for days and days.”
An unfortunate set of circumstances often lead to most people finding themselves on the street, Cheeks said.
“The typical story is, someone gets their license suspended for whatever reason, like it might be a DUI or something. But that’s how it begins,” Cheeks said. “Then, you might even continue to drive, but if you get pulled over, you get put in jail. Well, by the time you get out of jail, you have to pay a fine, you’re on probation, you can’t hold a job because you can’t drive anymore, your wife decides she doesn’t want you, she kicks you out and you have no family here and no place to go. The next thing you know, you are on the street and you don’t know what to do.”
Most employers won’t hire anyone without a license, so the person is stuck without a job, money, home or food, Cheeks said.
“All of a sudden, your day becomes what are you going to eat? How are you going to deal with the elements? And where you are going to stay?” Cheeks said. “It’s not like these people living on the street can say, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to get up, go take a shower, get a haircut and go get a job, by golly!’ It doesn’t work like that.”
But the average person doesn’t understand the challenges that the homeless are facing, Cheeks said.
“I’ve been out there with the homeless and, literally, people will ride by and scream, ‘Get a job!’ It’s not that easy,” Cheeks said. “I talked to this one homeless guy, he had a heart attack and they induced a coma because he had diabetes. He was in a coma for 70 days.”
While he was stuck in the hospital, the outside world kept going, Cheeks said.
“He woke up 70 days later and his wife had died during that time,” Cheeks said. “He was a truck driver and he hadn’t paid his lease on his truck, so they took his truck. They also foreclosed on his house, so he wakes up in the VA Hospital and everything is gone. Then, the VA kicks him out. He found himself on the street.”
Cheeks said he hears similar stories all the time.
“I talked to a woman, she had a guy move in with her and he kicked her out,” Cheeks said. “She had two kids, but then the state took her kids. She is now on the streets. She has been beaten, raped, treated horribly, but, remarkably, she still has hope. She still gets up every morning and faces the day.”
But many residents in Augusta don’t acknowledge these problems within their own city, Cheeks said.
“You’ll see a woman coming out of the Salvation Army with four kids, all of them have backpacks on,” Cheeks said. “That entire family is homeless, but people look the other way. It’s heartbreaking.”
Filming of the documentary in Augusta ran through the week of March 12-18, and both Braddock and McCullough endured a week living on the streets without proper food and shelter.
“We got here on Monday, March 12, and it was raining and pouring,” Brunetti said. “We dropped them off. And it was hard kicking them out of the nest, so to speak, because they were cold and wet. It was miserable, but we were following them from afar to see what happened. It was just incredible.”
Braddock told a Florence news station, WBTW News 13, that his time in Augusta was the “hardest week of my life.”
“We packed light,” Braddock told WBTW News 13. “I had a few layers of clothing, I had a backpack, a lighter, a water bottle, some hand wipes, and that was about it. The first day, we walked about six miles in the rain. It was two days before we ate, and we had to find shelter outside.”
Not only was living on the street physically hard, but Braddock said it was “emotionally hard and spiritually difficult.”
In fact, Braddock said not one person in Augusta gave him a dime when the two were panhandling to raise money for food.
“We panhandled, and I didn’t raise one single dollar all week. It felt degrading. It felt embarrassing,” Braddock told the news station. “Seeing people just walk past me. My sign said ‘Need Your Kindness,’ and for people to not say hello, it felt empty, and isolated. Not a single person asked me what I needed, where I was from, if I needed help or assistance… that’s what hit me the most.”
Brunetti said he was shocked by some Augustans’ treatment of the homeless.
“One thing that I think that’s really been apparent is, Augusta is kind of two-sided,” Brunetti said. “We’ve run into some of the most kind and generous and giving people imaginable who help and work with the homeless, and that’s been incredible. But, on the flip side, we’ve seen how the homeless aren’t just ignored — they are treated like they don’t exist.”
When the film crew met with local attorney Jacque Hawk, who also is an advocate for the homeless in Augusta, Brunetti said he was deeply moved by his insight into some of the problems facing the city.
“One of the most powerful statements early on when we were filming and talking to Jacque Hawk and his son was they had been helping this woman who was homeless and, in the end, they brought her food and clothes and asked, ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’ And she said, ‘Please don’t forget us,’” Brunetti said. “While we were filming, Jacque, at this point, has tears streaming down his face and he says, ‘I wanted to tell her that I wouldn’t, but how can you forget somebody that you don’t even acknowledge exists?’ That is the dichotomy we found here in Augusta.”
Brunetti said it was difficult to see people like Hawk and leaders for local organizations such as Golden Harvest Food Bank, the Salvation Army and The Bridge Ministry of the CSRA working so hard to help the homeless, while others looked the other way.
“There are people who are so compassionate, so giving and so loving and they are doing everything they can to help out other people who are in a bad situation,” Brunetti said. “And then, on the other side, you have some people who have more wealth than they know what to do with, but they treat the homeless like they do not exist. Like they are not real. So it has been aggravating, it’s been humbling, it’s been exciting, it’s been heartbreaking and it’s been inspiring.”
Brunetti and his crew are currently working to have the edited and finished documentary completed by June in order to find a distributor. Down the road, Brunetti would like to continue the project and have other similar documentaries about the homeless filmed in five more cities around the country.
“We just want to tell their stories,” Brunetti said of the homeless community. “One of the most surprising things for me, beyond the money and the physical material things that people provide to the homeless, is the fact that what they need and crave is a little bit of respect and dignity and acknowledgement.”
The homeless that the film crew met in Augusta were anxious to have people hear them out, Brunetti said.
“They are funny. They have personalities. They have stories. They are hurting. They are lost. They are all of those things,” he said. “And the fact that they don’t get looked in the face really hurts them. I mean, people actively avoid them. They talk about the homeless like they’re a problem. They’re people.”
Screaming things like, “Just get a job,” does nothing to help the situation, Brunetti said.
“That’s not a solution. That is a lack of empathy and an excuse on your part because you are too lazy to truly help,” he said. “It costs absolutely nothing to say, ‘Hello. How are you? Are you having a good day?’
“Don’t treat them a like a disease or the plague. Your ability to make change, it doesn’t take starting a nonprofit. It takes starting a conversation.”