COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Robert Knight has been living in a makeshift camp along the Columbus Riverwalk. For the last two years, he’s experienced homelessness first-hand.
“It’s horrible. It’s horrible,” Knight said last week inside the camp he has created along the Chattahoochee River. “It’s physically taxing every day. I have to go out and find food. Me and my cat. I got a cat and I have to feed my cat. It’s horrible here.”
Is it really that bad?
Ask Dexter Thomas, who is living at a Columbus homeless shelter designed to break addictions and get people back on track.
He’s fighting to stay clean, sober, and housed.
“It’s like a nightmare on Elm Street.,” Thomas said as he tossed a tennis ball in a game of fetch with the shelter’s dog, Gracie. “You don’t want to be out there. It’s too much crime going on out there. It’s scary. A lot of things are happening. You need to come here to get someplace to stay. To try and better your life.”
Chuck Bronson camps down by the river., like Knight and about a dozen others.
“The other night I had a dude try and steal my bicycle. He hit me in the eye and tried to snatch my bicycle out of my hand,” Bronson said. “It’s pretty rough out here. Pretty rough. … How are you surviving? One day at a time.”
This week Home for Good counted 244 homeless people in the Columbus area. That is up slightly from 237 a year ago. But significantly down from more than 300 in 2016.
Meet Joshua Williams, who also living one day at a time.
“I am originally from the Kennesaw, Marietta, Smyrna area,” Williams said. “And I moved up to the Buford area where I got into some trouble.”
“I have been in prison most of my adult life.”
The last two decades of Williams’ life have been spent either in prison or on the streets. He’s now in a Grace House recovery program.
“I was actually here in this program before, but I relapsed,” he said. “And I had to go do a little bit of time for my relapse. So, they resentenced me back into the program.”
His drug of choice?
“Methamphetamine. … I have been on meth for 20 years.”
And there has been no easy way for him to get off meth. But he says you know when enough is enough..
“You have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Sometimes it’s circumstances that land you on the streets. Bronson and Knight both worked construction jobs.
“I went through a divorce,” Bronson said. “Then COVID hit the same time. The guy I was working for just closed the business down. I might be able to find a little work here and little work there, but then I fell, fractured my neck in two places and I can’t work anymore.”
Ask Knight why he is on the streets.
“Because I can’t keep a job.”
It’s that simple?
“It’s that simple.”
Physical limitations are keeping Knight from working, he told News 3.
“I physically can’t keep one. I broke my collarbone, broke my collarbone, broke two ribs and two bones in my neck. I can’t …”
It takes some people longer to get sick and tired than others.
Along the river, there’s a 65-year-old man known as Old School. He’s a throwback to the old cliché of the homeless man under the bridge. Only Old School lives north of the J.R. Allen bridge and south of Oliver Dam.
News 3 walked into Old School’s camp with a group of Home for Good volunteers led by Eric McClure.
“This is the worst one I have ever been in,” McClure said. “And from my understanding, from one of the other guys we interviewed earlier, this gentleman has been down here 10 years. Homelessness hasn’t just hit Columbus. It has always been here.”
Old School has been here a while. Recently he was released from the hospital. His plan wasn’t a decade in a tent along the river.
“Well, I started out staying down here because I like to go fishing,” Old School said. “I was old and couldn’t work no more. Just living on my own, old, retired life. But you know it got rough there.”
And it’s mostly out of sight.
“People have no idea of what’s going on whatsoever,” McClure. “What amazes me is even if they see it, they will think it’s somebody down here temporary, or maybe just camping out on the river. Fishing or something. They don’t know. They don’t know what’s going on.”
Sometimes you have to look for the simple beauty when everything around you is harsh, real, and painful.
Knight has one of the most beautiful views of the river?
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. I love it here. I love that part of it. If I could build me a regular house here I would. Right here at this spot. I wouldn’t move. I love it.”
But with the riverfront view behind him, ask Knight again if he wants to be off the streets.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “Who would want to live out here?”
And it’s a life Bronson never imagined two short years ago.
“Never,” he said.