Written by Sam Bramlett / Photos by Nick Thomsen
Savannah is notorious for floods that occur after even a two-minute downpour. In emergency situations such as Hurricane Florence, what happens to Chatham County’s twenty-two homeless camps?
Local shelters can hold around 150 people. The county’s homeless population is about 4,000. Around 96 percent of Savannah’s homeless population must find a way to keep their things dry or risk illness.
Some of the more resourceful have resorted to scavenging loading pallets. By stacking the pallets on top of one another, the homeless can lift their tents and other valuables like gas generators off the ground.
There are six homeless camps within a mile of SCAD buildings. Students walk to their classes and pass by homeless people asleep on benches or panhandling in the street.
One of the city’s largest homeless communities is just a mile away from Jen Library under the Truman Parkway. Randy McKowen has lived there for a year and a half.
“You see those pallets?” McKowen said, “They sit their stuff up on them the way I have that tent. Cause when it rains, it floods pretty bad.”
According to McKowen, the pallets do just fine to protect his stuff when it rains even when the water level of the marshland behind his tent rises two feet. But another man in the camp, John “Sarge” Hamilton, said their camp is prone to severe floods.
“All of this around you is a swamp, and when the rain gets going it comes up to about here,” Hamilton said, raising his hand to waist-level.
Savannah’s Homeless Authority is active with camps and whenever a particularly nasty storm is about to hit, they make sure to alert people living in camps who then make the choice whether to stay or leave.
“If they choose to stay, that’s up to them,” Chatham Savannah Association for Homeless Certified Peer Specialist Rudy Villalovos said. “If we need to evacuate people, we tell them that we’ll be out at the Civic Center, so if any individuals want to leave the city, they can get on the bus, and we’ll take them out to Augusta.” When they get to Augusta, the homeless spend their nights in empty high schools.
Some choose to stay and brave the elements. “A lot of them won’t move,” Villalovos said. “They’ll just deal with the wetness and, after a few weeks, they’ll come around asking for dry clothing.”
People without homes cannot stay out in the open in the city, and since there’s not enough room in shelters, they are forced to make do in camps. While there, their safety and security are dependent on their own resourcefulness.
“They’re not allowed to lay on benches, the cops won’t let you do that,” Villalovos said. “They have to go to a camp, or their spot. They have to hide somewhere basically, like behind a building or wherever.”
Some of the homeless get food stamps or disability checks. The Homeless Authority tries to ensure that people get medical attention when they need it. However, on an ordinary day of hard rain, people in the camps are on their own dealing with floods.
“It was knee deep in water here one time,” Sarge said. He built a bridge through the swamp water that surrounds his tent. “If you can’t see the bridge, get the hell out now. I passed out here once. I drink a lot. Last time I passed out, I woke up and the whole place was flooded…ruined my generator.”
“I have things on reserve,” he said, “I keep plastic bags here full of clothing. Always keep clothes on reserve. I always keep a pair of pants and a shirt. I keep them in a plastic bag, with all my shoes.”