SPECIAL REPORT: Homeless Next Door - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

SPECIAL REPORT: Homeless Next Door

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What is it like being homeless?

News Leader 9's Brittany Dionne takes us deep into places where homelessness is a way of life right here in the Chattahoochee Valley.

America is said to be the wealthiest country in the world… and yet, many are struggling to survive.

You could be driving by and not even know what's above or below right here in the Chattahoochee Valley.

With our cameras in tow, we ventured into what area homeless people call "The Underground City."  It's a tunnel hidden from view, where a group of men live in squalor.

"We're blessed just to wake up to see the sun shine."

Old sofas, trash, mattresses, and clothes cover the ground. And this is where "Big James" and several others have set up their home.

"It does get cold down here," said Big James. "Coming off that river right there, especially when the wind is blowing. That's why I got my jacket on right now."

Big James has been living down here for over three months.

"When I couldn't get any more work, I had to come down here, somebody told me about this spot down here," James said. "They said there's a bed, that you can go sleep on."

 James says he lost his job working in construction because of a medical condition.

"I have a seizure disorder," said James. "I have seizures."

Now, he says he does whatever it takes to survive.

"Well, I'm a good metal stud framer and hanging sheetrock but I go out rake yards, clean up whatever you may have to do, I will do it for you," James said.

Big James is only one of hundreds of people living on the streets of Columbus and Phenix City.

After leaving blankets, bottled water, and food with James and his friends, we headed to another secluded area where over a steep hill  and across train tracks we met Larry and "Bo-Dean."

"This year will be twelve," said Larry.

"And you said you just figured this is what your life is?" we asked him.

"Pretty much for the minute," he replied.

The pair lives here along with Larry's pet Copper Top. Cars can be heard overhead, and they say the train comes by often, making it hard to sleep.

"Just call me a lost subject in the matter, in the mix"

"We're a wonderful community. We don't think we have the many problems that we have."

Local officials say it's hard to get an accurate head count of those living on the streets. They estimate it's around 200 people considered in what they say are chronically homeless in the Chattahoochee Valley.

"I think the big issue is the lack of affordable housing."

Elizabeth Dillard with the Homeless Resource Network says the ability for families to stay afloat is dwindling.

"There's nowhere in the 50 states that you can work a fulltime, minimum wage job and afford fair market rent," Dillard said. "So you could be a really hard-working person and not have enough income to pay your bills on a regular basis."

Statistics show more than 20 percent of Muscogee County's population lives in poverty.

For example, Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom apartment in Columbus cost $736 a month.

At the current minimum wage of $7.25, a person would have to work 78 hours a week just to pay the rent. But in many cases, those people who can't pay the rent end up homeless.

"Homelessness can happen to anybody," said Sandra Ruffin. "I think it more often poverty is the best indicator of homelessness if you live close to the edge. I've always been independent."

Ruffin, 44, worked two jobs to stay away from the edge, although she still lived paycheck to paycheck.

"It went bit by bit," said Ruffin. "First, I lost my job. Then, I lost my apartment and it just spiraled downhill." 

The mother of three moved to Columbus from Virginia six years ago. For the past five months, along with her oldest daughter and grandchildren, she's lived at the all-women's shelter Damascus Way. She says she didn't have the support system she needed. 

"With the people back home, I did ask for help but they weren't there for me," Ruffin said. "They weren't there."

 The number of homeless people in the U.S. has declined for a third straight year, according to a new government survey. But local officials say our numbers don't appear to follow that trend.

"From my perspective homelessness has grown. We have more programs that serve more beds that are available to people that are homeless and it's still not enough."

"The resources available here in this area, are above the standards."

Born and raised in Lagrange, Steve Reese traveled the country looking for a place to call home. He like so many others ended up right here in the Chattahoochee Valley.

Reese has been on and off the streets, in and out of shelters for nearly two decades.

"It's depressing," Reese said. "It puts you in a frame of mind like, this is what I've got to deal with. How in the world am I going to deal with it?"

Reese says he continues to improve his life every day.

"I have been free of addictions for about 14 years," Reese said. "This Thanksgiving actually is 14 years."

"It's hard pulling yourself out of the trenches of homelessness but it's possible."

"Don't lose hope. Don't lose hope. Stay strong. Keep your health. If you've got addictions get out of them. Have faith."

The story doesn't end here.

We want to remind you that you can "Share Your Thanks By Giving" this holiday season.

We've teamed up with the regional food bank Feeding the Valley to collect non-perishable food items for more than 200 agencies in 14 counties.

You can drop off your donations through November 26 here at WTVM, at any Publix location or at Headquarter Nissan on Whittlesey Road.

Copyright 2013 WTVM. All rights reserved.

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