Shelters are 'godsend' for homeless

George Nelson's problems began when he was laid off from his job two years ago.

Mr. Nelson, 59, is homeless. He spends his days hanging around downtown, often near large vents in an effort to stay warm.

Nighttime usually finds him searching for a safe place such as the Garden City Rescue Mission's homeless shelter, where he spent Thursday night and got a hot meal.

"This place is very important to me," he said. "It's a godsend."

With winter approaching and temperatures falling, Augusta homeless shelters are preparing for more people seeking refuge from the cold. Temperatures are forecast to be as cold as 30 degrees this weekend.

"The homeless manage out there, but when it gets cold they've got to come in," said Rusty Marsh, the executive director of the Augusta Rescue Mission. "The body can't withstand sleeping on the ground or under a bridge, which many of them do during the summer."

Mr. Marsh said his organization can house 70 men a night and has an overflow facility that can accommodate another 70. The Augusta Rescue Mission is averaging about 30 people a night now, but he said he expects that number to increase.

The shelter peaked at about 100 people overnight last year, Mr. Marsh said.

"I think each year the homeless population increases," he said. "The last year has been one of the most trying times I think this nation has experienced. There's no telling how bad it will get this year."

Garden City Rescue Mission shifts some of its policies when cold weather arrives, said Lavond Reynolds, the men's director for the organization. The shelter lifts a rule that limits stays to 90 days, a switch aimed primarily at those older than 60.

"We make adjustments to ensure that no one is out there and doesn't have a place to go in the cold weather," Mr. Reynolds said.

Garden City Rescue Mission has beds for 55 men but can house about 100 using cots and mats. The shelter also reserves 20 beds for women and children.

The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Augusta caters to women or families with children. Executive Director Sarah MacDonald said the group has a waiting list of 90 families, a record high she attributed partly to the economy and partly to impending cold weather.

"As soon as it started getting colder, the calls started flooding in," she said.

Families face more challenges during winter because it is harder for children to endure the cold, Mrs. MacDonald said. She added that many parents call their children's friends asking whether their kids can spend the night.

"You know that you can survive the night, but your 6-month-old baby is not going to be able to survive out there when it's 30 degrees at night," she said.

Reach Erin Zureick at (706) 823-3217 or erin.zureick@augustachronicle.com.

AUGUSTA SHELTERS

WHAT: Garden City Rescue Mission

WHERE: 828 Fenwick St.

SERVES: Men, women with children

CONTACT: (706) 724-6960

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WHAT: Augusta Rescue Mission

WHERE: 526 Walker St.

SERVES: Men

CONTACT: (706) 722-2058

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WHAT: The Salvation Army

WHERE: 1384 Greene St.

SERVES: Men, women and children

CONTACT: (706) 826-7933

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WHAT: Mercy Ministries

WHERE: 1739 Fenwick St.

SERVES: Homeless and poor people at its day shelter, open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

CONTACT: (706) 737-0242

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WHAT: Interfaith Hospitality Network of Augusta

WHERE: 2177 Central Ave.

SERVES: Homeless families with children, single parents with children and intact families with children

CONTACT: (706) 364-4462

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WHAT: Hope House

WHERE: 2205 Highland Ave.

SERVES: Women with substance-abuse problems

CONTACT: (706) 737-9879