Uneasy streets of Harrisburg

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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.

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."

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SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/20/08 - 12:52 am
0
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I do not think that we should

I do not think that we should take any of the Richmond county commission members seriously when they attempt to be reelected. We need to clean house.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/20/08 - 01:21 am
0
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Beard lives in a high

Beard lives in a high security high rise condo on the river. She is out of touch with reality. The mayor who was born with a silver spoon in his... is also out of touch.

patriciathomas
42
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patriciathomas 04/20/08 - 04:11 am
0
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When the city let Mercy

When the city let Mercy Ministries open in their present location without holding neighborhood meetings first, they categorized Harrisburg as a throw away community. I wonder if they would have acted the same way if the Ministries had opened up one block off Henry Street. I wonder if they'd ignore the complaints of the community then.

twman
0
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twman 04/20/08 - 05:29 am
0
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The hookers are STILL going

The hookers are STILL going into the house on Crawford Ave.Butch Palmer, is wrong though.The ministry did not bring crime to Harrisburg.This has never been Beverly Hills but before when mill workers lived here they took care of their houses and yards.I( was never afraid to go out after dark.Now its filled with prostitutes,drug runners and thieves. If there are any wives who are missing your husband during daytime working hours,come on down to Harrisburg.

junebug
0
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junebug 04/20/08 - 06:27 am
0
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Butch Palmer is right. This

Butch Palmer is right. This place brings in more that want a hand-out than a helping hand. I don't even drive through this drug and crime infested area.

DeborahElliott2
4
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DeborahElliott2 04/20/08 - 06:44 am
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Well, I agree that If the

Well, I agree that If the church leader is in the hospital and his wife is continually by his side and leaves the volunteers alone who happen to be the very ones they are trying to help is NOT helping. You cannot expect a drug addict to rehabilitate themselves without some form of discipline or support. This church is clearly wrong for that. What Mr. Palmer is wrong about is that these people really were here BEFORE the ministry even started and he is just as WRONG for closing his eyes to it. Just because he sees a LOT more activity only means that these people are USING the ministry and going back to their old ways without a shepard to lead them.

christian134
1
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christian134 04/20/08 - 06:59 am
0
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The area has and is

The area has and is continuing to fill up to overflowing with a criminal element that has dug it nasty evil self in so deep I don't believe an earthquake and tornado combined would dislodge them.....The most unsettling results of this are the people who come in under the pretense of "mercy" charging people who really are in need of help with over the top rents....My word they wouldn't be there asking for help if they could pay that kind of rent for the joy of living in such disgusting conditions....What's worse there are folks who have lived in these areas for more than 50 years...they have nice homes and are good people....just to tired and too old to keep protesting....Police need to have the authourity to round up all the criminal's and call on others who have some empathy and resources to help others that need help....Oh those who are rounded up....find some land in the desert and allow them to live there until they get straight....Then bring back the old CCC camps and Put their sorry lazy behinds to work....

armrescue
0
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armrescue 04/20/08 - 07:04 am
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Correction: The Augusta

Correction: The Augusta Rescue Mission is more than an overnight shelter. Mercy Ministries is a to be applauded for doing what it does for the homeless but it is not the only one. The Augusta Rescue Mission provides a program that makes them residents of the Mission for 1 year to get them back on their feet. They do random drug testing and keep a clean place. The isssue is you have to have a full staff and money to keep things in check so that the crime element is not allowed to take over. Mercy Ministries cant do this at this time because of the lack of Money. The Augusta Rescue Mission is totally different. Pray for Mercy Ministries to find a way to help the homeless without hurting the neighborhood.

myheart
0
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myheart 04/20/08 - 07:23 am
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Fran, I will pray for you and

Fran, I will pray for you and Jerry. Sounds like you need some volunteers to help get your place tightened up. I will help!
Anyone else?

Riverman1
94304
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Riverman1 04/20/08 - 07:37 am
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Yeah, it sounds to me like

Yeah, it sounds to me like the directors are having some hard times with the husband in intensive care for weeks. That would obviously make it hard for them to run the house right. The house obviously needs to be tightend up, but let's all help. It seems to me that they are doing a needed community service. Maybe one day the Kroc Center will open and lessen the need for such a place.

imconcerned
0
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imconcerned 04/20/08 - 08:28 am
0
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It would be great if a local

It would be great if a local church in that area would see the need and try to help out. Ain't that what the Church is for. It's a shame that someone had to come in from another area to help and then they get criticized for doing something good. Where are all the REAL Christians at?

streetwatcher
0
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streetwatcher 04/20/08 - 09:10 am
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from what I see Mr.Palmer has

from what I see Mr.Palmer has it all wrong, the trouble is not the homeless but the childre of home owners and cash paying renters. of all the crimes I have seen in this neighborhood it is the 16 year old drug dealing gun carrying son of a home owner, most crimes I have seen or heard of are commited by none homeless residents. as for the prostitues all the cars I have seen them get into have either south carolina or columbia county tags. keep them out of our neighborhood and the prostitues and drug dealers will be out of business. as for the overall crime and reputation of Harrisburg this neighborhood has had a bad reputation since I was a child living in south augusta 50 years ago, we were not allowed to associate from anyone from Harrisburg because they were supposly BAD people, so the activitie of this area is nothing new, stop blaming people that are trying to help people . all some people are worried about is their own property value of their own over prices redone house with a jungle yard

dani
13
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dani 04/20/08 - 09:31 am
0
0
a suggestion... Have the

a suggestion... Have the Olivers move onto the premises and act as 'houseparents". If they are so in favor of their project, then they should have no objection to living in it. (If is is good enough for the poor, it should be good enough for the Olivers.) I'm sure the Harrisburg residents will be glad to lend their support in getting them moved in.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/20/08 - 10:30 am
0
0
.dani.....wonderful

.dani.....wonderful suggestion. I will be happy to help the Ollivers move into our neighborhood. I will be happy to help any of the many suburban do goobers move down here. I do not have any respect for the do goobers who do not live in Harrisburg 24/7. They are full of it if they do not live here.

There is a paid do gooder at Saint Luke church on Crawford ave. named Marsha. She has been talking about moving into Harrisburg for a long time......Well it is a buyers market...I will be happy to help her move here too but I strongly feel like she is just spinning her "spirit filled " wheels while collecting a check just like Fran

CorporalGripweed
0
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CorporalGripweed 04/20/08 - 10:30 am
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Mercy Ministries is not

Mercy Ministries is not helping Harrisburg people. I sit on my front porch everyday and watch the vagrants roll in from everywhere. I live on Crawford Ave. If these people who are being helped are from Harrisburg, I have never seen them before, and I have lived here a very long time. We have a lot of problems here, but as Mr. Palmer said, this is like adding gasoline to a fire. We have been trying to put the fire out! By the way, the Kroc Center will not be helping or housing the homeless on their site. Also, the Olivers have been interviewed several times, and they never mention having a solid program in place to help these people. All I see is drinking going on on the front porch of the house these people are living in. This place has got to go.

Bubba
152
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Bubba 04/20/08 - 10:32 am
0
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Let's call it what it is.

Let's call it what it is. Greed. Maybe Mr. Palmer needs to sell all the rental properties he inherited and buy a smaller number of properties in Summerville, or on Walton Way or behind the gates of Conifer where people of his ilk are happier. The only ghetto I see in Harrisburg is in his unhappy heart. Like it or not he is a taker from that community, not a giver.

Bottom Line: Mercy Ministries came to that street because there were homeless people and others with a world of other troubles. The downtrodden people were there before Mercy Ministries and they will be there long after we are all dead and gone.

FedupwithAUG
0
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FedupwithAUG 04/20/08 - 10:43 am
0
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An organization like this

An organization like this should not be located in the center of a community. I wouldn't want to go to work and know there are a bunch of bums roaming around all day looking for a chance to rip me off. Put them in a house down by the Marble Palace. They can keep an eye on the commisioners cars during the day.

HillGuy
8
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HillGuy 04/20/08 - 10:53 am
0
0
While I admire charities that

While I admire charities that try their best to help the poor and downtrodden, this is essentially a flop house.

FedupwithAUG
0
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FedupwithAUG 04/20/08 - 11:10 am
0
0
It is kind of ironic that Mr

It is kind of ironic that Mr Palmer is all in a tissy about Mercy Min. this year. Being he went from owning one house in Harrisburg last year to owning nine this past year. Yet his organization targets the "Slum Lords" of Harrisburg. He's probably the first one down at the HUD office trying to get section 8 housing to fill his properties.

WW1949
19
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WW1949 04/20/08 - 11:16 am
0
0
Buba, I believe Mr. Palmer

Buba, I believe Mr. Palmer lives in Harrisburg and is trying to cleanit up. I work in Harrisburg and have for 30 years. We now have to lock our doors at our office. We do this because people walk up and down the streets all day and night and the women in the office don't want to take chances. Justa ride down Eve St. and look at all the trash in front of the houses after you pass Tubman St. No pride. This did not start until some of the lower downtown people starting moving up or look at the house catty cornered to the fire station. Look at the houses down from the Corner Grocery or across from Mom and Pops and the people living in them. They are a sorry bunch.

dani
13
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dani 04/20/08 - 11:17 am
0
0
Bubba..it is not much

Bubba..it is not much different than not wanting sex offenders in your neighborhood. As Americans, the least we can ask for is a safe place to live. The matter of who owns what or how much, is not the point, the point is caring, hard-working people having this in their midst. If you tried this in any other part of town , the residents would protest it just like the Harrisburgers.

christian134
1
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christian134 04/20/08 - 12:01 pm
0
0
Dani that is perhaps the best

Dani that is perhaps the best suggestion I have heard....If it so great and beneficial to the welfare of the poor living there then they need to live there with them....Slum-lords come in all shapes, sizes and denominations.....The chances of these folks living in their own slums are slim or none in my opinion....I might have better opinion of these people and their "ministry" if they were not charging such a huge rent for such a miserable dump.....

junebug
0
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junebug 04/20/08 - 12:03 pm
0
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The city inspector checked

The city inspector checked out the ministry's 13-room boardinghouse and found a list of deficiencies, including residents living in filth. It should be shut down until all violations are corrected.

kiseta50
0
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kiseta50 04/20/08 - 12:23 pm
0
0
I have moved to Harrisburg 6

I have moved to Harrisburg 6 years ago and I am doing my best to inprove this neighborhood. Lately I have seen a lots of changes around the Eve street corner where the little store is. I think it is the large families with bunch of kids right on the street ,without parents with them, are more of the danger then the homeless. Some of these slumm lords that never fix up any of the rentals, only stick the "For Rent " sign out. I have seen this young woman in the second house on the right of Battle Row with 4-5 small kids, sitting on the porch and the clothes on the fence it looks like the Getto in the old south. I feel sorry that she has so many kids, but we all heve choices in life. The Section 8 authorities should inspect how the tenents keep the homes they live in, with the help of the tax payers. I have read that where mr. Palmer lives, he has chickens and goats, I sure would not like that next to my property.

canalfishing
2
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canalfishing 04/20/08 - 01:42 pm
0
0
I have heard enough. I been

I have heard enough. I been in Harrisburg for 31 years. there where little corner stores everywhere. The people worked for their money then, and cared for each other ,but them same building that we call churches are still on every corner even after the stores have closed. My point is, we dont ever hear but two churches in the area that is reaching out, but they cant do it alone. Now, here is the kicker, come in harrisburg,their's a church on every street from the canal to walton way.The people are nice and most grew up here or married someone who did. But when church is out,they disappear. There is a book in the Bible thats says, "when i was hungry,did you feed me. when i was naked,did you clothes me. when i was in prison did you visit me,and so the bible says. I would'nt be to quick to put my mouth on the people who's doing Gods work, the Olivers are doing just that. It would be nice to live nice for 300 a month, i agree, but they need help at the ministries and we have enough churches to do it with. Crime, it was here before the Olivers came, Mr palmer i got bad news for you, sell quick and get out, it's getting ready to get worse. Bottom line, it's no place to raise your kids.

uncleshirt
0
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uncleshirt 04/20/08 - 01:56 pm
0
0
My family is from

My family is from Harrisburg-we've been here about 80 years. I think Mr. Palmer needs to leave Mercy Ministrys alone because he is focused on the wrong people. The people we all need to be concerned with are like the people who live in the "catty cornered house near the fire station". Why be concerned? Because cars from out of state, from Columbia County and other areas pull up to this place at all hours of the day and night. The people in the cars talk to the men hanging out by the house and then they drive away.
I think the Augusta Police Department should be flooded with calls from the concerned citizens of the area. If we took collective action maybe these people would find it harder to do their "business".

iletuknow
8
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iletuknow 04/20/08 - 02:44 pm
0
0
Load em all up at night and

Load em all up at night and haul em off.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/20/08 - 03:28 pm
0
0
After Mercy Ministries are

After Mercy Ministries are gone there will be far fewer people roaming around the neighborhood. Decent people will be more likely to invest and live here. Mercy Ministries are a block to our neighborhood becoming healthy. We need to start by removing Mercy Ministries in order to take the gas off of the flames of Harrisburg.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/20/08 - 03:39 pm
0
0
Uncleshirt....Why don't you

Uncleshirt....Why don't you start taking a picture of those cars? You can get shots of their car tags and give them to the police.
Yes, collective action is what H.O.N.G.K. O. N. G. is all about.
Have you seen their web site ? www.hongkongaugustaga.org

anotherlook
101
Points
anotherlook 04/20/08 - 04:00 pm
0
0
I was very encouraged by the

I was very encouraged by the offers to assist Mercy Ministries. What a disappointment that so many may want to help others who are more unfortunate than themselves, but they just don't want them in their neighborhoods. In Harrisburg, there are several churches that have a soup kitchen, clothing closet, substance abuse support group, food bank or other services provided free of charge. Most of these are funded with the tithes, offerings, and sacrifices of caring church members. If you needed help, wouldn't you want to go where you're treated with respect, compassion, and understanding? In case you might have forgotten, Jesus said "the poor will be with you always." In Harrisburg it seems that God's people have not forgotten the poor but invited them to be a part of them and experience God's love and mercy. I am sorry the Olivers are having so much difficulty. I am sure that the surrounding Harrisburg churches will rally around and assist them. But until they do, lets see what we can do individually and collectively to help the least of these our brothers and sisters. Let us not abandon them but give abundantly to them the grace we have so richly and undeservedly received of God.

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