Is Mercy Ministries helping or hurting Harrisburg?

Homeless and wheelchair-bound, Bennie Stokes will take whatever benevolence he can get.

A diabetic, he had both legs amputated below the knees at Medical College of Georgia Hospital a few years ago after his feet became infected, and he has been exiled to the streets for the past month, he said, because none of his brothers, sisters or friends want him in their homes until his Social Security benefits kick in.

He spends his nights in the Greene Street Salvation Army shelter and, with a little help from a friend, his days in the heart of Harrisburg.

When morning comes and the shelter orders everyone out, fellow Salvation Army resident Kevin Hodge pushes him on a milelong journey, over the Butt Memorial Bridge, past the 15th Street Kroger, then up Fenwick Street and to Mercy Ministries, at the corner of Crawford Avenue.

Inside the red commercial building is the only day shelter in the city, the only place for the homeless to come in out of the elements, bathe, wash clothes and eat a warm meal.

While about a dozen men dozed in front of a television set Tuesday, Stokes sat outside a side door in the warm sun while a steady procession of men and women came and went between the door and the sidewalk.

"Wherever my friends go, I go," Stokes said.

Efforts are under way, though, to see him and his friends pushed some other direction.

Since Mercy Ministries co-founder and Executive Director Fran Oliver opened the shelter three years ago, she has been under fire from neighborhood activists charging that the shelter has made Harrisburg a mecca for street people, blaming it for an increase in crime and litter.

With the new Kroc Center scheduled to open in Chaffee Park in summer 9, and with developers such as Clay Boardman showing interest in the renaissance a nearly $100 million investment could usher into the decaying former mill village, some business interests have reasons of their own for wanting the shelter out of the way.

Hindering gentrification

While Harrisburg activists such as Butch Palmer and Lori Davis have been wielding the stick -- first a petition, then the push for a Chronic Nuisance Properties Ordinance, now threats of civil action against building owner Joe Smith -- businessman Donnie Thompson and the Rev. Kelly McKnight are trying a carrot:

A new citywide day shelter, located in downtown's industrial zone in the vicinity of Garden City Rescue Mission and the Masters Table soup kitchen, consolidating all the homeless services in Augusta under one roof, making them better poised to obtain federal funds, with an invitation for Oliver to have a leadership role.

"Right now, it's just talk, that's all," said Thompson, the chief executive of Windsor Jewelers, who has met with Commissioner Matt Aitken about the idea.

McKnight, a Harrisburg resident and the pastor of Bible Deliverance on Fenwick Street, said it's going to take an influx of families for the neighborhood to realize the promise of the Kroc Center, but no family is going to buy a house with sketchy-looking men and women traversing the sidewalks.

His church has a homeless outreach of its own, Another Chance Ministry Network. If a new day shelter opened, it would move its Sunday morning breakfasts downtown, he said.

"Hopefully, Mercy Ministries would want to be there," McKnight said. "If a centralized day shelter is going to succeed, it would be very important to have their participation."

To that, Oliver said she respectfully declines. Not all churches and nonprofits share her ideas about how things should be run, and she's not interested in joining forces with them. Nor is she inclined to move locations to get out of the sights of Palmer and Davis.

"Why would I care?" Oliver said. "I do what God wants me to do. Not Butch Palmer."

The nature of the issue

Oliver said the people who want her out don't understand the nature of her operation or the nature of homelessness in Augusta. To the charge that Mercy Ministries is a magnet for vagrants, she laughed.

The majority of the people she serves -- providing showers, bathrooms, phones, computer kiosks, help paying for medications and help obtaining identification cards -- live in Harrisburg, one of the poorest sections of the city, which is why she moved her operation there in the first place, she said.

"When we were on Laney-Walker, we had to drive to Harrisburg to help people," said Oliver, who founded the ministry with her late husband, Jerry.

Of the 30 or so people who come to her each day, Oliver estimated about five come from downtown. The rest either sleep in abandoned houses in Harrisburg, or rent units there but can't afford utilities or groceries.

And if the homeless are congregating in Harrisburg, she said, it's not because of Mercy Ministries. Both Oliver and McKnight say people in their programs tell them that, when the homeless go downtown, police order them to stay above 15th Street during daylight hours.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he knows of no such practice. His deputies may order loitering vagrants on Broad Street to move along, but they don't tell them which direction to go.

Oliver did say that if a downtown center opened, she'd be willing to stop calling Mercy Ministries a homeless day shelter, focusing on the after-school program, assistance for the poor in Harrisburg, the thrift shop and the adjacent quadruplex boardinghouse, where 12 people live in an old schoolhouse building owned by the ministry.

Oliver said she would encourage people coming from the Salvation Army, Garden City Rescue Mission or Augusta Rescue Mission to stay downtown. Asked what she'd do if they kept coming to her anyway, she said she'd deal with that when it happened.

Alan Ziobrowski, an associate professor of real estate at Georgia State University who commutes from Columbia County, said there's no question an epicenter for homeless foot traffic will have a negative effect on revitalization efforts.

Regardless, now is the wrong time to start a gentrification push, he said, given the state of the housing market, the difficulty homebuyers are having obtaining loans and the oversupply of houses in the area. Even if a developer did buy up swaths of land, pushed out the poor and built new houses or condos, they'd likely sit empty, Ziobrowski said.

Nuisance in numbers?

Palmer, a lifelong Tuttle Street resident, said he disputes Oliver's estimate of five of 30 people coming to Mercy Ministries from downtown, saying every day he counts dozens of men walking up Fenwick toward the building.

"I'm all for what they're doing," he said. "It's like I've said all along -- wrong location."

Palmer began his public assault on the ministry in March 2008, when he submitted a petition with 137 signatures to the Augusta Commission, calling for Mercy Ministries to be relocated or shut down and blaming it for an "increase in crime, litter and the residents' sense of fear."

On his Web site and in media interviews, Palmer called Oliver a religious fanatic, an enabler of "riff raff" who was "importing a ghetto into our neighborhood."

He's since been joined in his pro-gentrification cause by Davis, a Crawford Street resident. Last summer, they organized a series of protests against drug dealers and their landlords, targeting three rental houses that they termed the worst nuisance properties in Harrisburg, but they did nothing against Mercy Ministries.

Davis is now president of the Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association and an appointed member of the Chronic Nuisance Properties Ordinance committee, which is drafting a new city code holding landlords accountable for their tenants' criminal behavior. She said they held off on Mercy Ministries because they didn't want to risk being politically ostracized for picketing a religious outreach.

Two of the "nuisance" rental houses they did protest had been visited by sheriff's deputies 41 times and 35 times within a period of just over a year and a half.

By contrast, there were 160 calls to Mercy Ministries between January 2008 and mid-February, 70 of them over verbal or physical altercations, according to Richmond County Sheriff's Office records. Others were over suspicious situations, thefts and burglaries, wanted persons and suicide attempts, among other things.

'We're the victims'

Annette Drowlette, Mercy Ministries' board chairwoman, characterized the calls as the shelter policing itself, which analysis of the figures bears out.

According to phone logs, at least 135 of the calls can be traced to Mercy Ministries, from the main line, the fax line, Oliver's cell phone or staffers' and volunteers' cell phones.

"We're the victims there," Drowlette said.

Of the total calls, 42 rose to the level of generating written incident reports, many of them fights involving residents of the boardinghouse.

Only three resulted in arrests, two for assault and one for possession of cocaine, which stemmed from an anonymous tip about a woman parked outside in a Ford Escort, according to the incident report.

During the same period, the Salvation Army shelter had 337 calls, and Garden City Rescue Mission had 164 calls.

Neither those aspects, nor the fact that most of Mercy Ministries' calls were self-reported, move Davis.

"That just goes to show that they have problems," she said, "and don't need to be dealing with their problems in the middle of a residential neighborhood."

Had enough

Last week, Davis began taking steps to go after the shelter before a new nuisance ordinance is adopted, saying the problem has become too pressing to wait for that or another day shelter to open.

In e-mails to the city's Law Department and acting State Court Solicitor P.J. Campanaro, she said she wants to file charges against Mercy Ministries' landlord under the state's nuisance abatement code. The law says a complaint has to be filed by a city attorney or city prosecutor, and Davis is still waiting for a response.

"My ultimate goal is to get them out, but not in another three years," she said.

Davis and Palmer said they're also preparing to file Magistrate Court claims against the building owner and another Harrisburg landlord.

Palmer said the one involving Mercy Ministries will be for $15,000, which includes his rental property losses caused by the neighborhood's perceived crime problem and the $1,500 he donated toward bringing consultant John H. Campbell to Augusta last month to speak to the ordinance committee.

Thompson and McKnight remain in the brainstorming stages of their plan.

According to the city's Housing and Community Development Department, no one has filed an application for Community Development Block Grant or Emergency Shelter Grants Program funds, either of which could be used for a shelter. The deadline is March 25.

McKnight said he's working on that.

Harrisburg's city commissioner said he supports their idea, agreeing there's a need for homeless services and that Mercy Ministries could be a detriment to revitalization. At the same time, he credits Oliver for taking on a problem no one else was willing to touch.

"You've got to take your hats off to them," Aitken said. "At least they're trying."

Oh, Mercy: people and personalities

James R. "Butch" Palmer, neighborhood activist
A lifelong Tuttle Street resident who's been railing against religious groups and welfare recipients for the past three years, Palmer gained a following and, last year, some political clout. First he was elected to the Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association's board of directors, then he ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 commission seat, throwing his support behind the eventual winner, Matt Aitken.
"If they weren't there, the troublemakers wouldn't be coming into the neighborhood," he says of Mercy Ministries.

Lori Davis, neighborhood activist
She joined Palmer's cause in 2007 and last year emerged as another outspoken leader in the push for Harrisburg gentrification, organizing and leading a series of protests against drug dealers and their allegedly enabling landlords. In December, Davis became president of the neighborhood association with the ouster of former President Denice Traina, and Commissioner Joe Bowles has appointed her to the commission's Chronic Nuisance Properties Ordinance committee.
"It seems to be a steady stream of what I consider vagrants and panhandlers," she said of Mercy Ministries. "I've been here nine years. They were not walking the streets before Mercy Ministries came."

Kelly McKnight, Pastor of Bible Deliverance Temple
His church has a homeless outreach of its own, Another Chance Ministries, but he said that with the coming of the Kroc Center, he's seeing how ministries that attract homeless foot traffic could be a drag on revitalization efforts. McKnight has been brainstorming with businessman Donnie Thompson and Kroc Center coordinator Derek Dugan on establishing a citywide day shelter downtown, one that - unlike Mercy Ministries - wouldn't allow its clients to come and go at all hours of the day.
"Now is the time to do something to take the community back," he said.

Fran Oliver, Mercy Ministries co-founder and executive director
She and her late husband, Jerry, opened the first Mercy Ministries day shelter on Laney-Walker Boulevard in 2002, then opened at the current location in Harrisburg in March 2007. Shortly thereafter, they began renting rooms in the adjacent boardinghouse. Oliver said she's not leaving Harrisburg, despite an invitation to join a new day shelter being pitched for downtown.
"I'm not trying to be stubborn about it, but there's a need for us," she said. "When all the Starbucks and all the revitalization moves up, there will be no need for us, and we'll be gone."

Donnie Thompson, business owner
The chief executive of Windsor Jewelers and founder of downtown's annual Thunder Over Augusta event, he's backing McKnight in a plan to open a new day shelter in downtown's industrial area. He said he's mostly concerned about the number of homeless downtown, and a centralized day shelter could offer services to get them back on their feet.
"These people, if they sleep in the streets, they're in no position to find employment," he said.
"There's some of them that just need a helping hand, and there's some of them that probably won't ever get out of that situation."

Matt Aitken, District 1 city commissioner
He's had a meeting with McKnight and Thomp­son about their plan, and said he supports it. Though he wants to see Harrisburg cleaned up - Palmer's contingent helped elect him, after all - he's also complimentary of Oliver's compassion for the poor. In a Feb. 22 Administrative Services committee meeting, Aitken said Mercy Ministries has been taking heat and the city needs a new day shelter. "If I had 160 (police) calls next to me, I wouldn't like it, either," he said.
-- Johnny Edwards, staff writer

Harrisburg-area homeless outreach

Mercy Ministries

1739 Fenwick St. - (706) 737-0242

Funded by donations and grants, Mercy Ministries operates the city's only day shelter for the homeless in the former Beauford Glass building at the corner of Crawford Avenue and Fenwick Street.

There's also a volunteer-run thrift shop, and the ministry rents out rooms in a two-story boardinghouse next door, where 12 people live.

Among the offerings for the poor and homeless are showers, a washer and dryer, meals, a food pantry, clothing giveaways, phones, computer kiosks, transportation for the disabled, help buying medications, help paying utilities, help obtaining identification, help building wheelchair ramps, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings and Bible studies.

The ministry also has an after-school program and youth baseball team.

ANOTHER CHANCE MINISTRY NETWORK

1857 Fenwick St. - (706) 736-1600

An outreach of Bible Deliverance Temple, Another Chance holds breakfasts for the homeless on Sunday mornings at 8:30.

It's also housing formerly homeless people in eight houses. Seven are occupied by families, and one has four single men living in it.

harrisburg-area Food pantries

- Crawford Avenue Baptist Church, 507 Crawford Ave., (706) 738-2527. 10 a.m. to noon on fourth Mondays. Social Security card and picture ID required.

- Christ Episcopal Church, 1904 Greene St., (706) 736-5165. 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. first and third Thursdays. First 60 clients. Picture ID required. Soup kitchen 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

- Bible Deliverance Temple, 1857 Fenwick St., (706) 736-1600. For emergencies only. By appointment only.

- Grace Street Church of Christ, 120 Grace St., (706) 736-0222. 9 a.m. to noon fourth Saturdays. Picture ID required. Emergency assistance at other times by appointment.

FOR A LIST OF other Augusta-area agencies offering assistance to the poor, go to tinyurl.com/yaghlzw.