COVINGTON, Ga. — City Manager Scott Andrews says the area’s homeless population is at its highest in recent history, and the issue is only intensifying.
At the conclusion of the Covington City Council’s meeting Monday, Oct. 18, Andrews shared a prepared statement about the growing issue of area homelessness and the city’s request for changes at its local shelter.
“After one-on-one meetings with the police department over the past year, I learned first-hand of the strain homelessness is placing on our law enforcement officers,” he said. “This caused us to dig deeper and ask some difficult questions.”
Since 2010, Andrews said, crimes related to homelessness have increased by a staggering 267%, from 34 to 125 crimes in 11 years.
“These are from numbers of crimes that were solved that we know the homeless were involved with,” he added. “There are unsolved crimes that they are tied to as well, so the 267% is likely much higher.”
Andrews shared that at least five dead bodies of homeless individuals had been found in tents in the woods, and, in 2017, a homeless man murdered another homeless man and set his body on fire.
Just two weeks ago, there was a homeless fatality on Old Atlanta Highway, he said.
Andrews said the Covington Police Department has confirmed at least 87 documented homeless individuals in Covington over the last year. Despite having Rainbow Community Shelter located in Covington, a large number of homeless people were still living in wooded areas within the city — something many residents might not realize, he said.
“The actual [homeless] population could be as high as double today,” Andrews said. “Unfortunately, that number is growing weekly, as are the crimes in Covington, Newton County, tied to those that are displaced.”
While collecting this information, Andrews said he and city staff members joined forces with local nonprofit and faith leaders to address the issue. About nine months ago, he said, the Spirit of Covington group was formed to discuss various opportunities. The group has identified “resources for those in need” and is involved in initial discussions to open a warming shelter this winter.
“I say all this because the city of Covington has a heart for aiding those in need,” Andrews said. “We have no desire to close the homeless shelter. Today, we have the largest population of homeless people in recent city history. We need a shelter. However, through our fact finding and diligence we have learned that a heavy majority of the beds at the shelter are going to those coming from the prison system.”
There are 57 total beds according to the Covington Fire Department’s inspection numbers. Per an open records request, Andrews later learned the shelter had 45 of those beds assigned to the state Department of Corrections — 28 male and 17 female.
“That equals 79% of the beds going to the [Department of Corrections],” he said. “That leaves only 12 beds for our local residents.”
Andrews said the goal was not to close the shelter. In fact, he understands the need. Since 2009, there have been more than 1,200 calls to the shelter, he said.
“While many of us in this room have enormous hearts, earlier this month the city communicated to the [Covington] Housing Authority, who has the lease with the local shelter, that the city does not wish to see the shelter participate in any prison rehabilitation or jail transition-based programs,” Andrews said. “We would like to see the shelter help those that are already displaced in Newton County, not add to the ongoing stream of released prisoners.
“Again, we are not advocating for a closure of the shelter,” he concluded. “The city simply wants to decrease the strain on our police force, keep our community safe and better care for those that are already displaced in Newton County.”
Councilman Kenneth Morgan agreed that changes needed to be made but said it would take all parties involved coming together in order to make necessary changes that would be a “win-win” for the city and its residents.
“We all realize there are some things that need to be done,” he said. “But I think the biggest thing is that we, as a council, along with Pastor [Clara] Lett at the homeless shelter, and the community, need to come together and decide, if there is no transitional program, how we can continue to move forward with it.
“I feel there’s a lot of different options and things we can look at moving forward to make sure that we can still be effective and it be a win-win for the community,” Morgan added.
Rainbow Community Shelter was rocked by an EF-1 tornado just more than one year ago, on Oct. 10, 2020. Wind gusts up to 112 mph ripped much of the building’s roofing away and caused significant damage to the shelter.
Shortly after the storm, the Newton County Board of Commissioners and city of Covington donated $30,000 apiece to aid in the shelter’s recovery.
Councilwoman Fleeta Baggett said she has requested on several occasions to see how that money was spent, asking for receipts and associated spending documents, but to no avail.
“Back when we gave the county $30,000, and the county was to give the money to [the shelter], I requested at that time — I was a ‘no’ vote — that they give us the receipts and tell us exactly how they spent the $30,000,” she said. “For over six months, I have been requesting to see how that money was spent, and I still have not gotten it. What is the status of that, [City Clerk] Audra [Gutierrez], with the county? … The last time they just sent you a copy of the check for $30,000. Have you received anything else?”
“I have not,” Gutierrez replied.
“Thank you,” Baggett said definitively.
Rainbow Community Shelter, located at 7154 Turner Lake Circle SW, is operated under the direction of Lett, a local minister.