Authorities continue to see homeless repeat offenders
by Amanda Ryker
Jan 13, 2012 | 3855 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Cartersville homeless man talks to a reporter as he prepares to move to another area in the county to live. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Since the economic downturn almost five years ago, more and more people have found themselves homeless. While their individual reasons and situations are unknown, some of them begin to commit petty crimes and can become repeat offenders.

"I don't consider the homeless a high criminal repeater," Bartow County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Jonathan Rogers said. "[Homeless repeat offenders] are more of a nuisance than anything else. I say that because they don't care about anything but begging for money and then getting drunk with the money."

One of Bartow's homeless citizens who resides in one of the camps constructed throughout the city of Cartersville disagrees with Rogers.

"Some will drink, but they'll have a drink and go to sleep,"said the resident who asked to remain anonymous. "Drinking may be an effect of [being homeless]. It's about cause and effect.

"There's about six of us back here and we're staying warm. People come by and leave stuff for us and the Lord will provide. We try to better ourselves. One guy tried to go to college. Some of these guys had really good jobs before [becoming homeless]. I owned a paint business."

While Rogers may, on the surface, appear uncaring, he says the concern comes because of the limited number of deputies and other calls placed to 911 that rank as higher priority calls.

"They tie up deputies having to deal with them because they harass or scare the public in their demeanor and drunkenness," Rogers said of the homeless who are frequently arrested.

Cartersville Police Department Lt. Mark Camp offers another view.

"Many times we get called to certain areas of the city because a citizen sees a homeless 'camp' set up in the woods," Camp said. "Depending on who it is that is residing in the camp, we try to get them to move on or issue a criminal trespass warning so that if they come back we can then arrest them for trespassing. Oftentimes, their squabbles, fights and theft are among each other so we may have multiple subjects to deal with."

Though some homeless citizens turn to crime, Rogers said their charges tend to be less serious.

"They are almost always charged with disorderly conduct or public drunkenness and occasionally [deputies] catch a criminal trespassing or peddler violation," Rogers said. "All we can do is arrest them and then they are released after time served and are back doing the same thing again."

Camp agrees to an extent.

"The homeless people are often times charged with public drunk, disorderly conduct, assault and larcenies such as burglary," Camp said. "We have several repeat offenders. We arrest them and they either post a bond or wait until a bond hearing. Usually, if it is not a serious crime, they are soon back out on the street, which is something we cannot control."

In such cases where alcohol is involved, homeless people causing a disturbance to the peace are not always welcome at local shelters. Last week, a call was placed to 911 concerning a homeless man who was intoxicated. The dispatcher advised the responding officer that homeless shelters refuse to accept this particular male when he is intoxicated, therefore causing the officer to arrest the subject and house him at the jail while he was incapable of caring for himself.

Jessica Mitcham, executive director for the Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter, confirmed the dispatcher's comment and detailed the guidelines guests must follow at the shelter.

"All guests have to be drug and alcohol free," Mitcham said. "When they arrive, they are tested, and if they are not able to pass the drug and alcohol test, then we cannot serve them."

For those who are not able to stay at the shelter, other services may be provided, including hot meals, showers and laundry. Other local services are available for homeless citizens seeking help in overcoming drug or alcohol addiction such as the Hope House and the Mercy House. Dr. Moore's Hope House Inc. offers Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on Saturdays as well.

Mitcham also said the shelter refers people in need of assistance it cannot provide to a service provided by the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness, which can be reached the toll free number 1-877-540-4671.

Homeless persons battling against alcohol may be able to take the test at the Good Neighbor after 24 hours of their initial fail.

"Specifically with alcohol issues, they can come back in and we will re-test them," Mitcham said. "As long as it's negative, and they want to try to work on staying drug and alcohol free, we would be able to serve them. We have an Al-Anon group that meets here on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. and is open to the community."

To help their guests become successful and change their situation, Mitcham said the shelter encourages active job searches.

"All of our guests have to be looking for employment," Mitcham said. "They have to do six job searches six days a week in order to stay at the shelter."

However, if a guest finds a job and is able to obtain another source of housing, there are certain conditions on their abilities to return to the Good Neighbor should another hardship occur.

"Once a guest has stayed here, they have to wait six months before they can come back to stay again," Mitcham said. "They can only stay a total of three times in a lifetime."

While the conditions may appear strict, Mitcham said requirements are set as thus to avoid enabling people and to encourage guests to become strong and successful.

"We have guests who exit the shelter who are tremendously successful and get back on their feet and find a job and really make it," she said, "but others maybe find employment and get a little bit down the road and run into problems again."

Overall, though, law enforcement and shelters exist in the community with an understanding and desire to help those in need.

"We are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and know that but for the grace of God we would be homeless," Camp said. "We also know that like anyone else, the homeless have the same protected Constitutional rights that everyone else has. If no one is complaining about them and we are not getting any trouble from them, we usually let them be or try to see if they need medical care or see if the shelter will take them in."