Homeless men take shelter under the bridge

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- As Shannon Flynn and Colin Bailey talk with a visitor who has joined them at their "home" under the Liberty Bypass bridge at Slappey Drive, the noise of cars passing on the bridge overhead is a steady roar.

"You get used to it," Flynn, 36, says as he notices his visitor's reaction to the vehicles streaming by mere inches above their heads.

"It's like the radio playing; it's just noise," Bailey, 62, adds.

Flynn and Bailey are part of Albany's growing homeless population. They, like dozens of others in the city, have settled into a niche that provides at least some protection from the elements. The pair spend their days mostly sitting at the top of the sharp incline under the bridge, talking and watching the traffic flow by.

They leave the spot they've claimed as home for the past several months when necessary: to search for a bathroom they can use, a food run when there's money, to search for a prime panhandling location. On occasion, some kind soul stops to offer a hot meal.

"We've got everything we need here: sleeping bags, plenty of blankets, food to eat," Bailey, who says he was a medic during the Korean and Vietnam wars, responds when asked about the conditions under the bridge along Albany's busiest thoroughfare. "I've lived everywhere -- in the woods, under railroad tracks -- and this is as good as any.

"I've been out on the streets for years now."

Flynn, who said he served in Iraq and met former President George W. Bush while aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, has been on the streets of Albany for the past four months after being "kicked out" of The Anchorage, a local substance abuse center.

"I met this guy when he was walking around with hardly any clothes on, freezing to death," Bailey says of his companion. "I kind of took him in, gave him some of my clothes and let him stay up here with me."

Flynn acknowledges the truth of Bailey's words.

"I didn't have anywhere to go; he helped me survive," the younger man admits. "We've been together for a while now, and while we might argue a little bit every now and then, we try and get along. We usually do."

City officials say men and women whose stories are similar to Bailey's and Flynn's are becoming more and more commonplace in the community.

"When people are having a tough time like these folks, they're going to go where there is help," Assistant Albany City Manager James Taylor said. "They're going to go where there are shelters, where there is health care, where there are churches, where there are veterans services.

"Regrettably, in this area, that place is Albany. We have homeless people here from all over this region."

Indeed, Bailey said he was born in Colquitt but has spent most of his life in Albany. Flynn came here from Atlanta.

Homeless shelters like the Albany Rescue Mission and the local Salvation Army offer respite for individuals like Bailey and Flynn, but as the local economy has worsened, finding adequate space for those in need has become a difficult task.

"We feed 7,000 meals a month here, and we can house up to 50 men and 25 women and children," Donnie Carter with the Albany Rescue Mission on North Monroe Street said. "But the homeless population in Southwest Georgia is vast, and we just don't have any room for anyone else right now.

"We can go out and minister to the homeless in the community, and we open up our chapel and provide blankets and pillows when it's cold. If we know there are homeless in the area, we'll at least drive by and take them items like toothpaste and soap. We want to do everything we can possibly do."

Even with a number of shelters and care facilities in the city, not every person living on the streets is looking for a place to stay.

"This is where I want to be; I'm comfortable here," Bailey said. "I want to be away from people."

The local Coalition to End Homelessness, a collective of individuals and agencies working to better the lives of the area's homeless, will conduct the annual homeless count in Dougherty County the week of Jan. 24-28. The hope, according to count co-chair Thelma Watson, is that individuals contacted by volunteers will find an alternative to living on the streets.

"Frankly, some people aren't interested in living in a shelter," Watson, the manager of public services for the city of Albany's Department of Community and Economic Development, said. "What we try to do is entice them, give them a better alternative to living on the streets.

"The police can drive through and tell someone to move out of a place, but unless they're persistent, many of these folks are going to stay where they are."

Watson said the community can play a part in helping the homeless by volunteering to help with the count and by taking a survey that collects community input on how the city's $2 million Housing and Urban Development allocation is spent.

"The (survey and homeless count) can work hand-in-hand," Watson said. "We can make contact with our homeless population and let them know what options are available to them, and if the community wants a portion of the HUD money spent on the homeless in the region, they can indicate as much on the survey."

Community meetings to discuss the HUD surveys are planned for Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Microbusiness Enterprise Center at 230 S. Jackson St., at Greater Grace Church of God at 205 S. Westover Blvd. at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and at the 406 W. Highland Ave. Literacy Center on Jan. 13 at 10 a.m. Hard copies of the survey are available in room 333 of the Microbusiness Center. It can also be filled out online by accessing the www.albany.ga.us website.

The efforts of groups fighting the local homeless problem aren't lost on men like Bailey and Flynn. But that doesn't lessen their burden.

"I'll agree, it's a shame people have to live like this," Bailey said. "It's a shame that a country like ours doesn't do more for the people who fought wars to protect it. Hell, I took four bullets in Vietnam, and this boy went over to fight in Iraq.

"I'm getting close to an age where I can collect Social Security. Once I start getting that, I hope to be able to rent a place of my own."

And what of his young companion?

"If he'll let me, I want to move in with him," Flynn says. "He's taken care of me this long."