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Businesses and individuals in the City have reported the issue of litter and debris being scattered throughout parts of the commercial district by homeless people that seek shelter in these areas.

Local realtors and business owners have also been impacted by the homeless situation, as homes and other structures are broken into, squatters have taken over unoccupied buildings and homes, and businesses are repeatedly asked for handouts.

Realtor Maggie Brice Snell has struggled with issues caused by homeless individuals. “I was told Vidalia has an estimated 150 homeless people. While I sympathize and wish I knew how to help these folks, you will be surprised to know that some don’t want help and are satisfied or like the life they have,” she explained. “I think drugs play a big role in some of their thinking, while others would want to change probably if they could.”

She recounted one experience where her internet was disabled at her office, “My internet kept messing up and the service guy said someone’s been messing with the wiring outside and asked was it me. I laughed and said definitely not [because] electricity and me don’t mix well — I’m not into getting shocked. I asked why someone would mess with the wires and he said possibly to try to steal internet service or trying to use electricity since there are several boxes with wires there together.”

Snell continued, “My wheels are turning. I’m at my office from 8:305 almost every day. For months I’ve heard odd noises, doors closing, one dark morning I pulled up early and thought I saw someone walking through the backyard but convinced myself I was wrong. Apparently, I was right!”

According to Snell, Law Enforcement Officer Robert Wiggs and Snell’s Assistant Tonia Williams recently discovered that someone has been living in a storage building for several months. The building has no electricity or running water and is located in downtown Vidalia on Jackson Street behind Snell’s realty office.

Inside the building, Wiggs and Williams found several items that had been taken from the office, such as patio cushions from the office’s front porch. “[The individual wasn’t] there [when we made the discovery] but we left specific instructions by a note to not return or they would be arrested,” Snell remarked. “I first felt sorry for them and their situation. Then, as I talked to my daughters, they were like, ‘Mom, this person could be dangerous and could harm you. This person is a thief and is breaking into buildings that aren’t theirs.’” She added, “All this to say while I sympathize and pray they find a better life, I am 100% serious about protecting myself and I am telling this story to make others aware to be thinking and to be safe. Even in a safe, good neighborhood with neighbors on every side, I have an intruder that has been there for months and I didn’t realize it.

Landlord Daniel Ford shared that he had experienced first hand an uncomfortable encounter with the homeless. While making a routine check on one of his vacant rental properties in the vicinity of downtown he encountered an individual sleeping on the floor of the property. “It’s very disturbing to come to your property and find someone who is not renting or has no business being there lying on the floor,” he commented.

Sandwich Shoppe Owner Amy Robertson voiced her own struggles with homeless individuals. “There is help everywhere these days. There is no reason for them to be homeless. They choose [this life],” she emphasized. “I’m so sick of them coming into my business asking for a free handout. I get up and bust my butt and work so that I can have what I have. I’m not giving it away to someone that chooses not to work or help themselves.”

Alex Muzafarov, his wife Nickie, and business partner Mike Yetnatsky recently purchased the lot adjacent to the Boys and Girls Club, which they state was formerly a camp for the homeless. “We removed 7 large roll-off dumpsters of trash from the property in front of the Boys & Girls Club,” Yenatsky explained. “We have been trying to clean up that area for a while, but former owners of the property would not do anything to help. Eventually, we agreed to purchase that property, just so that we can clean it up.”

According to Yenatsky, around 50 individuals were living in that area prior to the cleanup. “It was obviously taking a toll on the community [because of] theft, drugs, starting fires, etc.,” he said. “In some areas we cleaned up, trash was compacted 3 feet deep. There were structures made from pallets, but most squatters lived in tents.”

One thing that Yenatsky said he found most surprising when speaking with the individuals living in the area is that most of them were not from local counties. “Where are they coming from and why did they decide to come to Vidalia?” he questioned.

Yenatsky predicts the cleanup will be complete within the next week with only a small tree removal project left to be done. “I hope our actions encourage others to look for ways to improve our community,” he emphasized. “Look for something you can do and do it – whether it’s a cleanup project, reporting of suspicious behavior, or volunteering. Anytime you see something that’s not right, make a habit of asking yourself, ‘What am I going to do to make it better?’” “It’s heart-wrenching. I have been a City Councilman for over 20 years, and we have never dealt with a homelessness issue with this much prevalence,” Councilman Cecil Thompson explained. “I am working to try to find solutions to the issues alongside other city officials and any constituents who may have ideas on how to handle this situation.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Raymond Turner agreed that he has also never seen the issue before, as he said, “This is the first time I have ever seen anything like this in our area. We are talking to other cities and areas [about how they handle the issue] and are trying to learn how to handle it because we know it is not going away.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Turner and Councilwoman Jennifer Evans both explained that Vidalia does not currently have the resources to create a public shelter, but are seeking options for addressing the issue.

“Homelessness is a concern for us as well as our neighboring cities. We currently do not have the resources to implement and maintain a public shelter; however, we are researching opportunities presented to us from citizens, non-profits and neighboring communities,” Evans remarked.

“We are looking at grants and other sorts of other options,” Turner explained. We have not given up hope [on remedying the situation]. We will do what we can to fix this issue.”

The City is in the process of enacting ordinances directed at easing the homeless problem. The Urban Camping ordinance, which prohibits anyone from camping or sleeping within public areas, gives officers legal grounds to remove individuals from public property. The first reading of this ordinance was completed on Monday, June 12 and this ordinance will be voted on and most likely approved at next month’s City Council meeting.

God’s Storehouse operates a food pantry from its new location on Center Drive and gives free meals and food items each week to those in need.

Gardens of Hope RCO, a drug recovery outreach program, provides survival resources for the homeless struggling with addiction. They partner with All Sons and Daughters Worship Center to offer people in need with a hot meal each Tuesday.

Other local organizations and churches have established resources to provide the homeless with supplies and food. Both Calvary On Aimwell and Lyons First United Methodist Churches make available “Blessing Boxes,” which are outdoor boxes with food, soap, and other items available for anyone to take who may need it.

Yet, these acts of kindness are being met with problems, as some who take from the box truly need the resources, others who are not needy are pilfering the boxes for their own benefit. “We have some who come every single time we fill the box and completely take everything,” one citizen shared. “It’s very frustrating.”

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