SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - After months of debate, the West Savannah community could soon learn the fate of what has become a highly-debated proposal by the Salvation Army to build a transitional housing homeless shelter off Augusta Avenue.
The proposed 12-acre lot used to house the Bartow Housing Complex but has sat vacant for more than 15 years. It is also near the site of the historic 1859 Weeping Time slave auction. Historians refer to the traumatic two-day event as the single largest sale of enslaved people in U.S. history. Some neighbors say they would like to see something other than a homeless shelter built on the land.
On March 11, the Savannah City Council voted to delay a vote on whether to grant the Salvation Army a special use permit to build the shelter. The 30 day delay came after questions were raised over a potential conflict of interest on the city council. WTOC first reported that Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier has ties to a competing proposal for the land. Lanier has been a vocal opponent of the Salvation Army’s proposal, leading protests against the development and calling for the land to be utilized in a more profitable way.
Since then, neighbors have continued to speak out. On March 18, activists held a demonstration off Augusta Avenue, and asked WTOC to talk to neighbors in order to find out how they feel about the project.
“Go talk to the first 15 people in West Savannah you find, and you will find that we don’t want it here,” said Reverend Leonard Small.
WTOC has spent months talking to people on both sides of the issue, but we decided to hit the streets again to hear from neighbors. Over the course of two days we talked to more than two-dozen people. Among them, 13 were strongly against, and 7 were strongly for the proposal.
“Why do they have to bring it into this neighborhood?” asked lifelong West Savannah resident Beth Williams. “This is a struggling neighborhood already. They already don’t clean up the neighborhood. So, why would we want to bring a shelter in, and have people we don’t know roaming our neighborhoods.”
Neighbor Easter Jenkins is afraid the site of the proposed shelter is too close to Brock Elementary School. The two sites are separated by Interstate 516.
“I don’t think it should be there by that school,” said Jenkins. “So many bad people be coming through.”
Martha Roberts, another longtime West Savannah resident, told us she would rather see housing and a playground built on the site for families looking for a place to live.
“Something for the children. A playground, something for the people that need houses in this area. Because, we have a lot of people, their houses are gone,” said Roberts.
We also heard from a handful of neighbors who didn’t feel strongly enough about the proposal to go on-camera. And we heard from a group of neighbors who are for it.
“I really think that it’s probably a good idea,” said West Savannah resident Lathan Williams. “I don’t see any particular reason that it shouldn’t be there.”
West Savannah resident Juanita Washington said she also supports the shelter, especially because the Salvation Army is behind it.
“I’m for the Salvation Army being down there,” said Washington. “You know, the Salvation Army does help people. If they burn out, they give them a place to stay. And I’m for that.”
Roosevelt Bostick grew up in West Savannah. He said he’s seen the Salvation Army’s proposal, and thinks it would be a good thing for the community.
“I have no problem with it,” Bostick said. “I think it’s something nice. They need something over there… people have to have a place to stay.”
Earlier this month, the Savannah City Council delayed a vote on the Salvation Army’s proposal, for 30 days. That means the earliest it could come up again for a final vote would be at its meeting on Thursday, April 22.
While we heard from more people that are opposed to the proposed shelter, the neighborhood survey shows the community does appear to be divided. One thing is certain: it is definitely an issue that has stirred-up passion in the community.
“I’m sorry that they are homeless,” said Williams. “But this is not the neighborhood for them.”