SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - More people now than in the past are living under bridges or in the woods, often in filthy conditions. Homeless prevention groups say the number of rogue camps in the Savannah area has grown to 39. The most they have seen in years.
Under the President Street overpass, there is a community of about 40 people living in tents.
“Six more weeks of winter. I wish it were summer right now.”
On a chilly February day – the morning low was 36 degrees - Heather Pontzius gave a tour around her campsite.
“This is how we live right here,” she said.
Inside her tent was sleeping bags, a lamp and a heater that connect to a gas generator.
Each tent in the community represents a room in a house. Most are for sleeping, others for storage and one.
“This is what we have to use for toilets and stuff. We have to make our own bathroom.”
There is no running water or plumbing. And since Pontzius moved in six months ago, she says the camp has doubled in size to around 40 people.
“Since the pandemic has gotten worse, a lot more people are being more homeless. The landlords are kicking them out,” Pontzius said.
The camp on President Street is one of the largest and most visible camps in the area. It is one of close to 40 homeless camps identified by the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless.
“I would say we’ve been in crisis with the homeless population for a very long time. Decades,” said Cindy Kelley, executive director for the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless.
Kelley says the number of camps is at a high point now because of reasons connected to the pandemic.
“The beginning effects of eviction because of COVID, and I think it’s going to get worse.”
And those who live in tents are part of a much larger group of people who rely on homeless services in the Savannah area.
According to a 2019 homeless service count, there were nearly 4,600 men, women and children affected. By that count, Kelley said Savannah is more comparable to Atlanta when it comes to the population served.
As she explained, the root cause in Savannah is unchanged.
“We have a critical housing shortage here and because of that we have folks who live on the street, have lived on the street for many years - have some income yet not enough income to afford housing,” Kelley said.
For many of those living on the streets, the homeless authority estimates what is affordable is $250 and $350 per month.
Compare that to the average monthly rent in Savanah right now.
According to Rentcafe.com, the average place rents for about $1,165 per month. A number that continues to climb each year.
A price that is far out of reach for people like Pontzius who are living on disability.
“The only thing I’ve found is expensive. It is $550 a month and a rooming house. I don’t trust rooming houses.”
She says she is limited to improve her financial situation because of a neurological condition.
“A lot of us have mental and health problems. I have seizures.”
It is a condition she says she was born with and interferes with her ability to break the cycle.
“This is about my fifth time being homeless in Savannah even though I have a social security check it’s not enough to get an apartment or anything.”
The homeless authority regularly checks in with those who live at the camps. Kelley said most of the people who are chronically homeless are senior citizens. Many have medical concerns and should be in assisted living.
The city has partnered with the homeless authority to open a sanitary camp on Dundee Street. It will have running water, bathrooms, and showers.
The City of Savannah has not provided an updated timeline for when it will open.