Local attorney Jacque Hawk refuses to look the other way when he sees a homeless person living on the streets.
He understands that these men, women and children are real people with real problems who need real help.
“In the fall of 2016, my son, Erin, wanted to do some community service and we talked about it and he asked, ‘What about helping the homeless?’” Hawk said, adding that he immediately thought it was a fantastic idea. “So, we start collecting clothes and winter blankets and toiletries, whatever the homeless needed and handing them out.”
When the Hawks first began providing the homeless with clothes and supplies in 2016, the weather had already begun turning cold, especially at night.
The living conditions of the homeless were far worse than they ever imagined, Jacque Hawk said.
“One young man, about 25 or so, he had slept all night on the ground under a bridge,” Hawk said. “He was so cold he could barely speak. He was wearing tennis shoes, blue jeans, a shirt and a very light, unlined jacket. The skin on his hands was cracked from the cold. He was visibly shaking.”
Just recalling the young man and his fragile state brought tears to Hawk’s eyes.
“That one was bad. Really bad,” Hawk said, pausing for a moment to collect himself. “That kid was about to die.”
The Hawks may not have ever found this young man if another homeless person hadn’t told them that there was someone sleeping under the bridge.
Fortunately, the Hawks quickly came to his aid.
“He was in trouble,” Hawk said. “He needed our help.”
As Hawk, along with his son and members of The Hawk Firm, began regularly handing out clothing and supplies that they collected from donations, they also began talking with the homeless.
“When I was out, I would ask them, ‘Hey man, how did you get here? What’s going on? What do you need?’” Hawk said.
One day, in January of 2017, Hawk learned some deeply disturbing news.
“I found out that some officers from the sheriff’s office were taking the homeless people’s stuff and throwing it away,” Hawk said. “Here I was, out there trying to give them stuff to survive, and the officers were collecting it and throwing it away.”
Hawk was outraged and quickly took action.
Not only did he inform the homeless of their rights, but he also turned to social media to make the public aware of the actions of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
“I want to make this clear, someone is ordering the city employees and law enforcement to go out and deal with the homeless,” Hawk posted to his Facebook page on Jan. 11, 2017. “Now, what instructions they were given, I don’t know, but I intend to file an open records request to find out. I feel the ones removing the homeless and taking their belongings are only following orders from above. And that’s where the focus needs to be. And if they’re not acting pursuant to orders, then they have set their own fate. I intend to arm the homeless with pens and pads to get names, and other identifying information to represent them for the theft of anything taken from them.”
And that’s exactly what Hawk did.
“I had gone out and gotten little pads and pens and gave every homeless person I met a pad and a pen,” Hawk said. “I said, ‘You get their names, you get their car numbers, you get the employees’ names, you get truck numbers. Everything you can get.’ I was pissed. I was getting ready to sue every damn body.”
Not only were the officers throwing the homeless people’s items away, but they were frequently doing it while the homeless were in line to get food at Golden Harvest Food Bank’s The Master’s Table Soup Kitchen on Fenwick Street.
“A lot of times, the officers would wait until the homeless were going to the soup kitchen to eat and they would go over to the camps and raid the camps and throw all their stuff into a dump truck and take it to the dump,” Hawk said. “That’s straight-up robbery. If you or I did it, we’d go to jail.”
After finding out about the officers’ actions, Hawk continued to post strongly worded messages on Facebook to inform the public.
“I want everyone to know that we are being protected from the homeless by the authorities taking their stuff insuring that they freeze to death,” Hawk posted on Jan. 10, 2017. “You can sleep well in your warm bed tonight. Great work, Augusta.”
SEEING THE HOMELESS AS REAL PEOPLE
Days after posting such comments on social media, Hawk said he got a call from Chief Patrick Clayton of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
“My comments got their attention,” Hawk said, chuckling. “But I have to say, the sheriff’s office has been great. Honestly, I don’t think Pat Clayton or the sheriff were really aware of what was going on. Basically, the city was telling the sheriff’s department that business owners were complaining because there were people panhandling downtown. So they were told, ‘You need to move these homeless people out.’ But they didn’t know what was really going on out in the field.”
Since bringing the problem to the attention of sheriff’s office, Hawk said Clayton has been outstanding in trying to come up with a solution.
In fact, Clayton has formed the Augusta Homeless Initiative, which is a task force that consists of several individuals from Augusta’s Housing and Community Development Department, The Salvation Army, United Way, Family Promise of Augusta and several other local organizations.
The task force, which had its first meeting in June, is meeting again this week with Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree to discuss the group’s future action plans.
During the last meeting, Clayton told the task force that the sheriff’s office would be using its Safety Management and Response Team, otherwise known as S.M.A.R.T., to help manage and provide security for the homeless. They also hoped to identify an effective way to collect reliable data about Augusta’s homeless population in order to get them the help they need.
“We are not going to transition them all, but if we could transition 20 percent, then that would a successful beginning,” Clayton told the group.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent homeless population report that was released in March, there are approximately 10,373 homeless people in the state of Georgia.
Augusta-Richmond County is estimated to have about 445 homeless people in the city. About 246 of those people are living on the streets without any kind of assistance or emergency shelter, according to HUD’s 2018 report.
Many of them are suffering from mental or physical illnesses, and they are hungry, scared, hurting and alone, Hawk said.
“There are numerous groups in Augusta trying to help the homeless, but nobody is coordinating these efforts,” Hawk said. “And the city is spending all of this money, going out and moving them or locking them up. Or the homeless go stay at the library or they go to the emergency room, and we have to pick up the tab for that. Or they will try to do little things to get picked up by the police to get out of the cold and get to stay in the jail.”
Hawk believes that Augusta needs to develop a long-term transition center that would help the homeless get off the streets for good.
“With a transition center, they could actually stay somewhere and get the things that they need to really help change the course of their lives,” Hawk said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Go get a job!’ But many of them don’t have a license, they don’t have a Social Security card, and they don’t have anywhere to go to take a bath. They don’t have all the things they need to get a job.”
There are many successful transition centers already established in cities all over this country such as Atlanta, Savannah, Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Worth, Texas.
“A transition center is somewhere that the homeless can get basic fundamental health care,” Hawk said. “It is somewhere they can take a shower. Somewhere they can go to get out of the weather and somewhere they can lay their heads at night.”
During the Augusta Homeless Initiative’s meeting in June, Zenia Negron, the director of social services at The Salvation Army, said that there is a definite need for a “long-term overnight shelter,” and also a place for homeless to go to during the day.
Lt. Charles Mitchell III of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office added that the county needs to develop a program to get identification cards for all of the city’s homeless. He said that the sheriff’s office could help facilitate transportation for the homeless to get these IDs with a bus.
Chief Clayton also said that the city should form a Social Services Team that would determine the homeless’ immediate service needs as well as their long-term needs.
Hawk has been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and willingness of the sheriff’s office to lead the charge and help find a solution for Augusta’s homeless population.
“I wasn’t out to beat up anybody, but I wanted real help for the homeless,” Hawk said. “And Pat Clayton, with the sheriff’s office, has been instrumental in getting this process started. The sheriff’s department, the city and I truly care and want to find a better way.”
MAKING A TRANSITION CENTER A REALITY
While the task force is beginning to make plans for the future, Hawk is continuing to collect donations for the homeless at his firm’s office located at 448 Telfair St., in downtown Augusta.
The firm also soon will be starting a tent drive to raise money to provide tents to the homeless as colder weather rolls into the Augusta area.
But his main goal right now is to make this transition center a reality in Augusta, Hawk said.
“It has to be a commitment by our city government to take the money they are spending to move the homeless and to pay for all the other related costs and devote that money to developing a space that is centrally located to where the homeless are living,” Hawk said. “Right now, most of the homeless are downtown. The second greatest population is on Washington Road. And we have some out in south Augusta.”
Augusta leaders simply need to see how other cities are not only helping their homeless but improving their communities by developing transition centers, he said.
“It’s not like Augusta has to reinvent the wheel. The wheel has already been invented,” Hawk said. “These other cities have done all the hard work. They’ve got something up and working. So I encourage our city leaders to go to Atlanta or other cities and visit their transition centers. Pick the best parts of each one. It’s a win-win. It’s a win for the homeless because they get the help they need, and it’s a win for the city because it will end up costing less money in the long run.”
Because, the truth of the matter is, Hawk doesn’t see the homeless population decreasing on its own.
“There are so many families that are right on the cusp of being homeless that are barely getting by and barely making their rent and barely getting enough food,” Hawk said. “All it takes is the main breadwinner to go down with an injury, and an entire family can be on the streets.”
Every time Hawk delivers some of the donations he’s received from the public to the homeless, he is deeply moved by some of the strong individuals he meets living on the street who have just fell on hard times.
For example, in January 2017, Hawk said he met a man named Wesley living in his car with his dog, Oz.
“He sold plasma to help provide for himself and Oz,” Hawk said, adding that Wesley was looking for any kind of work such as cleaning gutters, washing windows, yard work or moving furniture. “He had no felonies and a valid license. He was just looking for any work to improve his and Oz’s life.”
A few days later, he ran into a 31-year-old homeless man named Clinton who had been living on the streets for more than 13 years.
“He was raised in foster care until age 18 and he was told on his 18th birthday they had something for him,” Hawk said, once again trying to fight back his emotions. “He thought maybe a party. They gave him some papers and threw him in the street.”
His foster family was no longer going to receive money to care for him, so he was shown the door, Hawk said.
“He was never taught to drive and didn’t have a license or ID,” Hawk said. “He doesn’t know who his parents are and he’s worked odd jobs but has no real skills other than labor. He hadn’t slept inside for 13 years.”
Those are the people that drive Hawk to try and get the city to consider building a transition center that could properly get the homeless off the streets and into a safe and secure environment.
“There are hundreds just like Clinton out there,” Hawk said. “Their daily struggle is real.”