Uneasy streets of Harrisburg

Trying times have fallen on Mercy Ministries.

 

A group of its neighbors wants the Christian outreach for homeless and working poor out of Harrisburg, and last month submitted a petition asking Augusta commissioners to shut it down. The group's leader, Butch Palmer, blames the ministry for a rise in crime.


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Last week, a city inspector checked out the ministry's 13-room boardinghouse and found a list of deficiencies, including residents living in filth.

Co-founder Jerry Oliver, the ministry's facilities director, has been in intensive care for three weeks at University Hospital. His wife, co-founder and Executive Director Fran Oliver, has been spending all hours at his bedside, leaving their staff of volunteers -- most of whom were taken in off the streets by the Olivers -- holding the operation together.

Mercy Ministries moved to Harrisburg from the Laney-Walker neighborhood in 2007 and has been open in the red building at the corner of Crawford Avenue and Fenwick Street for just more than a year, providing a day shelter with a bathroom, a washer and dryer, showers and a food pantry. It also rents out rooms in a century-old, two-story quadruplex next door, charging $300 per month to men and women trying to get back on their feet.

Faced with mounting criticism, Mrs. Oliver and acting director Lee Aikens vow to be more vigilant, saying they'll start random drug tests of boardinghouse residents. Mrs. Oliver, speaking in a waiting room at University Hospital, said she'll also designate an on-site manager to keep tabs on the place.

It's the rental units that draw the most ire.

"You've got so many people running in and out of that house, you can't determine who lives there and who don't," said Angela Spence, 24, who lives across the street.

"They're either on some kind of drug, or they're drunk. You can see (prostitutes) walking up and down the street, getting into cars."

But eradicating Mercy Ministries wouldn't alleviate crime, said Gregory Francisco, the president of the Augusta Task Force for the Homeless.

"If you remove one element from an area and compare it to what it was before, you will find you haven't moved anything," he said. "You will find it was always there."

No other day shelter exists in Augusta that serves homeless and low-income residents, Mr. Francisco said. Garden City Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and Augusta Rescue Mission are all overnight shelters.

ONE MAN, who sleeps at the Salvation Army at night, plugs in his electric wheelchair at Mercy Ministries several days a week, Mr. Francisco said.

"If it wasn't for them, where would he go?"

Mr. Palmer, the head of the Harrisburg Organization Networking for Gentrification to Keep Our Neighborhood From Becoming a Ghetto, or HONGKONG, said he doesn't care where the homeless go. He just wants them somewhere else.

A lifelong Tuttle Street resident, Mr. Palmer charges that the Olivers aren't helping anyone, but rather enabling addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes who sponge off the ministry. The day shelter, he said, draws "riff raff" who leave a trail of trash between Mercy Ministries and the 15th Street Kroger.

"It's importing a ghetto into our neighborhood," Mr. Palmer said.

THE HISTORIC neighborhood between Walton Way and the Augusta Canal housed mill workers in the late 19th and early 20th century. The ministry's boardinghouse is a relocated piece of the old Fifth Ward Grammar School.

In recent decades, though, Harrisburg has changed, as formerly owner-occupied bungalows have gone rental and Section 8. It's now one of the poorest sections of Augusta, with an average household income of $28,858, according to estimates by market analysis service DemographicsNow.

The Richmond County Sheriff's Office narcotics unit has been working cases in Harrisburg since long before Mercy Ministries opened, Sgt. Allan Rollins said. The unit has its eye on several "hard target" crack houses, but the boardinghouse on Crawford Avenue isn't on the radar, the sergeant said.

"We're part of the solution, not part of the problem," Mrs. Oliver said. "We're helping the people of Harrisburg. It's the people that were already there."

Such was the case with Billy Johnson, 47, who said he lived in the boardinghouse for 10 months. He said he once rented a house nearby on Battle Row, but he ended up homeless after his wife left him and he got behind on bills.

Before hooking up with Mercy Ministries, Mr. Johnson said he was living on the streets and sleeping in abandoned houses.

THE HONGKONG Web site is full of vitriol directed at Mrs. Oliver, who Mr. Palmer admits he's never met.

He lists her home address in Martinez and tells her to take her "ministry and the bums to Columbia County."

"Middle class white women tend to be at risk to become a religious fanatic," the Web site says.

Mr. Palmer acknowledged Harrisburg is rife with problems, but said the arrival of Mercy Ministries has been "like throwing gasoline on a fire."

Linda Walker, a cosmetology teacher at Augusta Technical College, lives in a restored house on Crawford Avenue with her husband and five daughters.

"I want people to have help, but not right there," Mrs. Walker said. "The biggest thing is it brings it all to a centralized area, and it's right there in front of my house."

But the building, with peeling yellow paint and a red metal roof, would likely be a much bigger problem were the ministry to pull out, said Iain Crawford, the president of the Harrisburg West-End Neighborhood Association.

"As far as I know, it was a crack house before," he said. Mr. Crawford has lived on Starnes Street for more than six years, and said he knew of crime and drugs in his neighborhood long before Mercy Ministries arrived.

THE BOARDINGHOUSE was one of three properties involved in an alleged mortgage fraud scheme that has Waynesboro-based Southern Bank suing former Augusta Commission candidate Robert Demello and three other people.

The bank now owns the building and has been leasing it to Mercy Ministries. Last year, Paul King, the owner of Rex Property & Construction Management Inc., was in negotiations to buy it. He said he wanted to renovate the building, making it more palatable to the neighborhood, then go on renting it to the Olivers.

Then he discovered lead paint in one of the four sections. The bank -- which lost $70,000 on that house alone, according to the lawsuit -- wanted too much for it considering the cost of removing the paint. Mr. King said he'd purchase and rehab the building if the price came down. Mrs. Oliver said she's hopeful that will happen.

IN THE MEANTIME, Mr. Aikens, the acting director, has been trying to keep the ruckus to a minimum. Last week, he told the residents that the ministry won't tolerate drug trafficking, drug use or prostitution.

A few days later, he evicted a woman after getting complaints that she was using drugs and having sex with men in her room. Before moving in, she'd been a homeless prostitute.

On Wednesday, Larry E. Lariscy, a senior inspector for Augusta's License and Inspection department, found inadequate lighting, insufficient smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, padlocks on unit doors instead of bolt locks and cleanliness issues that he attributed to tenants.

The inspector said he'll issue Mrs. Oliver a notice of violation, giving her 30 days to fix the problems.

ASKED HOW SERIOUSLY the Augusta Commission is taking HONGKONG's petition to boot Mercy Ministries, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard said "not very."

Ms. Beard, whose district includes Harrisburg, said she's hopeful the proposed $107 million Kroc Center, a mammoth Salvation Army complex planned for Chaffee Park, will change the area's fortunes. A Kroc Center that opened in San Diego's once deserted Rolando neighborhood in 2002 has been credited with raising property values and spurring nearly a half billion dollars in new investments.

Ms. Beard said she sympathizes with disgruntled neighbors, but it's unlikely Mercy Ministries is to blame for Harrisburg's ills. For Mrs. Oliver, the attacks from HONGKONG are a sort of validation.

"If you're not being persecuted for doing God's work, you're not doing it right," she said.

Reach Johnny Edwards and Stephanie Toone at (706) 724-0851.

A CAUSE OF CRIME?

As proof that Mercy Ministries has caused a crime spike in Harrisburg, HONGKONG has links to statistics that organizer Butch Palmer obtained from the Richmond County Sheriff's Office showing "the 15 months prior to the time Mercy Ministries darkened the doors of our residential neighborhood" and 15 months after.

The stats show 938 crime reports in Harrisburg from August 2005 through October 2006, and 2,276 reports from November 2006 through early February 2008 -- a 143 percent increase.

But Mrs. Oliver said she and her husband moved into the building at 1739 Fenwick St. during the summer of 2006 and didn't open their doors to the needy until about March 2007. They began operating the boardinghouse, which they rent from Southern Bank, shortly thereafter, she said.

The Augusta Chronicle obtained its own crime data from the sheriff's office, using March 2007 as a start date and looking at 12-month increments dating back four years. After duplicate incident report numbers were eliminated, in the Harrisburg neighborhood there were:

- 951 crime reports from March 2007 to February 2008

- 789 crime reports from March 2006 to February 2007

- 902 crime reports from March 2005 to February 2006

- 793 crime reports from March 2004 to February 2005

Mr. Palmer's "15 months prior" figures also appear to be missing some reports. His spreadsheet lists only four incidents from March through October 2006. In The Chronicle's statistics, there were 573 in that period.

Since Mercy Ministries opened the boardinghouse, there have been eight crime reports stemming from its address, including four simple assaults and two larcenies.

-- Johnny Edwards, Stephanie Toone

NEIGHBOR VS. NEIGHBOR

NAME: Butch Palmer, a lifelong Tuttle Street resident

WHERE HE STANDS: His group, HONGKONG, has submitted a petition to the Augusta Commission to shut down Mercy Ministries.

WHAT HE'S SAYING: "It's importing a ghetto into our neighborhood."

NAMES: Jerry (left) and Fran Oliver, co-founders of Mercy Ministries

WHERE THEY STAND: Mrs. Oliver said she plans to assign an on-sight manager to keep tabs on the boardinghouse; random drug tests are also planned for residents.

WHAT SHE'S SAYING: "We're part of the solution, not part of the problem. We're helping the people of Harrisburg."