Down and Out in Savannah


A McLin

“Lost” by AR McLin

Chatham County has the second-largest homeless rate in Georgia. Over 4,000 individuals used homeless resources here in 2020 alone.

The estimated 40 residents living in the largest and most visible encampment, dubbed Tent City by Georgia Southern students formally known as 8n, near President’s Street, were given roughly a week’s notice to evacuate after the October 1st tire fire before the area would be bulldozed, cleared and fenced to prevent revitalization.

A “significant” fire at the encampment led to Truman parkway’s temporary closure and sparked an investigation resulting in the demolition.

“I’m reminded of five years ago on I-85 in Atlanta when a similar structure fell and collapsed. I could not live with myself if we had this structure collapse,” Mayor Van Johnson told WTOC 11.

Licius Young, an intermittent resident of 8n claims, “We done had fires way bigger than that that we called 9-1-1 for and they never came.”

Fires are common in encampments to keep warm and cook hobo stew according to Savannah Shaggy, a native of Savannah and leader in his community.

Regardless of claims, this was not the first time this encampment has caught fire in the public eye.

In 2018, a fire broke out less than a day after the Georgia Department of Transportation called for the clean-up of underpasses following the 2017 I-85 collapse. The fire prompted a cleaning but no residents were relocated.

For at least four years, Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless has been advising officials to work together to tackle the issues concerning encampments.

In 2020, several encampments–totaling around 80 people–were pushed out of Springfield Canal six weeks before the anticipated demolition date to make way for the Enmarket Arena.

“We had some banging tents, I mean camp one was awesome,” says Molly, a woman with a disability who has been experiencing homelessness for 14 years. Molly helped found encampment one which had a kitchen, water from the church, a bathroom and a city dumpster.

In 2021, talks of a sanitary camp set up for those in need in collaboration between the Homeless Authority and the City were reported by local news outlets. It is unclear whether the site promising electricity, running water and security ever came to fruition though folks signed up and were looking forward to an opportunity at a new beginning.

Most recently, in 2022, the City of Savannah heeded the advice and teamed with organizations offering access to bed spaces, veterinary services, health care and bus tickets out of Savannah to those at the 8n encampment before the Thursday demolition.

Out of 35 identified individuals living in 8n, only one person took the shelter offered.

“A lot of them are not trusting,” says Linda Wilder-Bryan, alderwoman of the 3rd district.

Mayor Van Johnson emphasized in his October 11th weekly address, “We are going to respect their dignity, we are going to respect their humanity”

Those displaced from their encampments have been without housing for extended periods and expressed discontent with their treatment.

Molly says it’s a “universal experience” for cops to kick someone awake at night and force them to move to designated locations. This routine continues all night, every night. “We’re lucky if we get 4-6 hours of sleep and that’s rare.”

Savannah Shaggy believes “they (the government) want that property” reminiscent of the displacement caused by the buyout of Spring Field canal, “it was looking unsavory to the public…and they are trying to bring in big business” Shaggy continues.

The City of Savannah stresses that public safety and health concerns are the priority, ‘it’s just not safe.” says Mayor Van Johnson.

Homelessness is not a new or savannah-specific problem, throughout the country, 580,466 people faced homelessness in 2020.

An estimated 161,548 citizens of California are without homes on any given day making the state the leader in homelessness rate. 28% of the nation’s homeless population resides in The Golden State.

Programs in the state have found housing for over 50,000 people since the pandemic; still, 113,660 are unsheltered as of 2020.

The lowest homelessness rate in the county belongs to North Dakota with an estimated 541 citizens experiencing homelessness on any given day as of 2020.

There are only 17 homeless shelters in North Dakota.

“There’s no one size fits all to address every single human life need who has become homeless,” said Jennifer Darsey, executive director of the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless.

A housing-first approach is cheaper and provides quick & sustained living when done correctly. This approach was adopted by Savannah Authority for the Homeless under Cindy Murphy Kelley to address the community’s basic needs.

In August 2020, the Housing Savannah Task Force was created by the City, and in 2022, $19.1 Million was budgeted toward housing incentives, including $4.35 million allocated for homeless housing.