WTOC Investigates: Salvation Army, neighbors passionately debate proposed West Savannah homeless shelter

Updated: Dec. 23, 2020 at 7:02 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The WTOC Investigates Team continues to follow a controversial proposal before Savannah’s City Council to move the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter to West Savannah. Some neighbors say they have serious concerns about the impact it could have on the community.

For the first time, WTOC is hearing from the Salvation Army of Savannah about this proposal. Officials with the charitable organization insist a new shelter would benefit everyone in the area – including neighbors.

The Savannah City Council is close to deciding on the matter. WTOC checked-in with both sides involved in this passionate debate.

The Salvation Army wants to build the shelter at 2305 Augusta Avenue. The site used to house an apartment complex but has sat vacant for more than a decade.

It’s also right down the street from 67-year-old Pamela Oglesby. Oglesby has lived in her West Savannah home nearly her entire life. Her parents raised her in the house she lives in today. She says she’s watched her neighborhood decline over the past few decades. She feels a homeless shelter is the last thing the neighborhood needs.

“It’s not that we don’t have compassion for homeless people. It’s not that we don’t love homeless people. It’s just that, we know this isn’t going to be something that’s going to strengthen us… bring us up from where we are!”

Larry Gordon is the Senior Pastor at nearby Solomon Temple on Augusta Ave. Gordon tells WTOC he has dedicated much of his life to helping the homeless in his community. Gordon said he even rents out homes at a discount to low-income neighbors, so they have a safe place to stay.

But Gordon adamantly opposes the Salvation Army’s plans.

“It will dominate this area… put shackles on this area!” Gordon said. “We love our homeless, and we forgive our homeless and pray for our homeless here. But we can’t take more homeless on top of this.”

1st District Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier argues the 12-acre lot, just southwest of Interstate 516 and Augusta Avenue is historic.

According to city records, it is next to the site of the massive 1859 “Weeping Time” slave auction. Some historians call it the largest slave auction in United States history.

Lanier feels some city officials support putting the shelter in her district for a reason.

“We’re easy picking. We’re probably the low-hanging fruit. ‘Oh, it’s just those people over there. They’re poor. They’re black.’”

The Salvation Army’s current shelter is located off Montgomery Street – four blocks south of Victory Drive in Midtown Savannah. On average, the shelter houses and feeds 100 men, women, and children every day. WTOC stopped by at lunchtime as about a dozen women were served a hot meal.

“We have the best cook,” one said, as she was handed her lunch. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” they replied.

Salvation Army officials tell WTOC they are doing everything they can to help those in need, but they cannot keep up with demand. Major Paul Egan tells us they do not have enough space, and the current building is falling apart. Egan said they recently put $500,000 in federal CARES aid toward fixing various issues with the building itself.

Egan said, if executed as planned, the new shelter would allow them to house nearly twice as many people, 24 hours a day.

“To say, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t want those folks in my neighborhood’… just, kind of sinks my heart a little bit.”

Egan believes people hear homeless shelter and make unfair assumptions.

“They’re more worried about what you might stereotypically think to be a homeless person,” Egan said. “We’re housing women, we’re housing children. We’re housing a very vulnerable population that’s struggling with addictions. So, we want to make sure all of that is kept away from here.”

Still, some neighbors around the proposed location off Augusta Ave. tell WTOC they are very concerned about an increase in crime. They point to the fact the site sits between an Otis J. Brock Elementary School and a liquor store.

Egan said he can sympathize with those fears.

“I would imagine that there might be people identified with the salvation army who might make folks nervous… I don’t know,” Egan said. “But I see more people coming through that are just moving forward with their lives in such a wonderful way. And, as folks get to know that and see that they’ll just be amazed.”

The Savannah housing authority still owns the 12-acre plot, which used to be home to the Francis Bartow housing complex. The apartments were demolished in 2005 due to termite damage, and the land has sat vacant ever since. The Housing Authority confirmed at a December city council meeting that talks between the two parties began that same year.

In 2017, HUD approved the transaction. The Housing Authority is required by law to have any sale approved by HUD. In 2019, the Salvation Army agreed to pay $500,000 for the land. And, in November, Savannah’s Metro Planning Commission approved the plan, too.

Now, the Salvation Army just needs the Savannah City Council’s approval for the deal to become official. The council met on Dec. 10 to discuss the proposal. When it came time for comment, neighbors made their displeasure known.

“West Savannah don’t need this,” one man said. “We do not need this!”

“(We’ll have) about 200 people coming there, at the liquor store, laying around drunk. My fear is, one of these same people coming out of there, exposing our environment, is going to rape one of our ladies, abuse them, kidnap them… it’s going to happen!” he added.

Another West Savannah resident’s comment drew applause from the room, including multiple members of the council itself.

“We may not have the finest homes, like on Tybee Island. But guess what? That doesn’t mean we don’t love our neighborhood like everybody else does. So, we fight for ours just like they fight for theirs!”

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