AUGUSTA, Ga (WRDW / WAGT) – It’s the season of joy and joy, but for dozens of local families this Christmas is overwhelmed with grief and loss.
I-TEAM found 61 people have died of overdoses in Richmond County this year, a 71% jump since stay-at-home orders took effect.
Addiction counselors warned in 2020 that serious consequences in the form of more overdose deaths would be expected, but the reality on the ground in Augusta is dire.
As noted earlier, addiction is closely linked to mental illness. National statistics show that people are twice as likely to become addicted when they are mentally ill.
But, getting help for either is difficult in Richmond County and as the I-TEAM team discovered, it is even more difficult for those living in poverty and who have no place to feel at home.
For two months, I-TEAM traveled the streets with the street team to understand why our homeless population has exploded since the spring. We reported on the 150% increase in homelessness in Augusta in just a few months.
We continue to reconstruct this problem and the picture becomes sharp. Missing resources other cities have here become a life and death issue, from streets and woods to motels and crumbling old buildings, we meet people struggling to survive.
“I was trying.” Said a woman named Tameka. We found her alive in a half-burnt house. His clothes were dirty. She didn’t shower. His speech is slow.
Marshal Shawn Rhodes asks Tameka if she is safe. Tameka is honest.
“I really don’t want to be here.”
We find out that Tameka actually has a government assigned caregiver. The State of Georgia classifies Tameka as an at-risk adult.
Social Security has even appointed a representative beneficiary to manage its funds so that Tameka has all of her basic needs met.
It’s unclear why no one sounded the alarm when she stopped taking her medication five months ago. Marshal Rhodes understands nothing.
“She has a caregiver, and this place (where she lives) is a disgusting mess.”
Tameka told ITEAM senior investigative reporter Liz Owens that she had stopped going to Serenity Behavioral Health Systems in Augusta.
“I had no way. Tameka said. No real house. No work. No transportation.
Serenity provides many essential services to those in need in our area, ranging from mental illness to developmental disabilities, disorders, addiction and more.
Very quickly, it is clear that Tameka needs immediate help when Marshal Rhodes sees his black eye.
“He said I know you got out of the room.” I said no, I didn’t, and he said yes, you did.
Liz Owens: “How long has he locked you in the room?” Much of the day? “
Tameka: “Yeah most of the day. “
Owens: “Has he ever made you do things you didn’t want to do?”
Tameka: “Yeah. I told him to stop.
Tameka needs more than a safe place. She needs affordable housing. She needs medicine. She needs a way to get some medicine. She needs treatment.
She’s being honest that she’s addicted to crack cocaine.
Medical detox is mandatory prior to admission to almost any type of rehabilitation, psychiatric, or transitional housing program.
Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Patrick Clayton said ITEAM law enforcement had very few options to take people like Tameka away. Indeed, although detoxification is mandatory before admission to a outreach program, there is no free medical detox program or place to do so throughout Augusta-Richmond County.
“On benzos and alcohol, if you don’t have a medical detox you can actually die. Explains Deputy Chief Clayton. “And for others, they may not die, but they will wish they were dead. Intense cravings, they just won’t be successful until they detox and currently there really is no possibility for that here.
We find Melbin asleep on the floor inside the old Sky City building in downtown. He tells the I-Team that he tried to get help two months ago. “I told them I was coming here to detoxify myself. They said we don’t do this anymore.
The University Hospital and Serenity are the only avenues here in Augusta where the homeless can go to drug addiction under needy care. Tameka asks to go.
It is up to the doctor to direct Tameka to a program that may or may not have an open bed at the end of the detox.
We have found that if there is no medical detox, there is no rehabilitation. No referral from a doctor also means no rehabilitation. No open bed also equates to no rehabilitation option.
Three strikes and back in the street.
“They are going to do something very temporary and not improve their situation.” Said Deputy Chief Clayton. “And these are some of the frustrations we have to deal with. “
ITEAM has found that the data paints a picture of what is happening on the streets of Augusta with drugs, with death and overdose causing frustration.
We found that overdose deaths have increased by 70% this year.
Early estimates show that the homeless population has tripled in 2021.
ITEAM also found that more than half of all inmates at the prison were mentally ill.
Deputy Chief Clayton sees the cycle repeat itself over and over again – firsthand.
“In the process, I don’t think we stick with them all the way, we pass them on to someone and then forget about them. We have to have it as a case management (system) with them early on and coordination throughout. I think that’s the only way to be successful.
Tameka’s future may very well depend on it, as well as the future of the many others we have met on the streets and who are struggling to survive.
The Street Outreach team completed their last big county sweep today. The next step is to make a list of needs and gaps in the service. Meanwhile, the people they have reached on the streets are already on their way to housing. Tameka has completed rehab and is currently in a program. Sunny, a woman with mental illness whom we introduced to you last week, now has a job.
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