Augusta, Ga. - An immigrant man whom married an American woman and solider found himself homeless and stranded in Augusta, Ga. in 2013 after his now ex-wife made him leave the apartment they shared. This immigrant man found himself living in the woods for slightly more than three months before he finally found a solution and made his way back home with the help of a former congressman’s staffers and interns.
Ulf Woida, a German native, left behind a security officer position at a military base in Mannheim, GE when he followed his wife to the United States. Woida and his now ex-wife had begun applying for a K-1 Fiancé Visa, and this required the former wife to accompany Woida to the filing office because she was considered the sponsor. However, Woida’s former wife did not accompany him before his temporary visa expired. This lapse in filing prevented Woida from obtaining employment and the financial burden on the former wife was believed to be a driving issue in their marriage, according to Woida.
Woida was an orphan, only knowing of a brother who also lived in Germany. When Woida was told to leave the apartment he shared with his former wife he had no money, no visa, no contact to anyone in Germany, and no friends or acquaintances locally. Knowing that he was illegally present in this country Woida said, “ I didn’t want to be deported because I wouldn’t be able to get my security job back, so I went to the [Richmond County] sheriff’s department and asked them if I’m going to be deported. They told me no, not unless I commit a serious crime like rob a liquor store or something.”
Woida was free to squat in the woods behind Burlington Coat Factory off of Augusta West Parkway without fear of being deported. He survived during a particularly heavy, and perhaps unusual, rainy season with the help of other fellow homeless men. Woida said one man had a spare tent that he let Woida sleep in. He also said one man shared food that he bought with EBT food stamps.
Being raised in Germany, Woida said he knew the Catholic Church was a great source of help for those in need, but in his situation the Catholic Social Services could not do more than give him some bus fare vouchers that he could use to get around to seek out help from other organizations. Woida used the bus fare vouchers for weeks but could not get any help from any organization. Shelters could not give him a bed because Richmond County shelters require a shelter clearance form from the Sherriff’s department, which provides a background check. Shelters also require I.D. and a Social Security number, which are also needed for the shelter clearance form. Mr. Woida did not have a US issued I.D. or Social Security number.
Lynda Barrs, Resource Development Coordinator for the C.S.R.A Economic Opportunity Authority Inc. says that one of the issues with helping immigrants without legal status is that most grant funding cannot be used for a non-citizen. If help is offered to a non-citizen then it would be on a special basis and “hush-hush.”
By early June Woida eventually was directed to former 12th district Congressman John Barrow’s Augusta office where another German native and student of then named Georgia Regents University was interning. Woida spoke well enough English that it seemed he had no trouble, yet in this emotional situation Woida said, “I felt so much relief when I could start talking in German and I felt like I was going to be okay.”
With the new republican administration committed to deportation it is curious how this situation could have ended if Mr. Woida was stranded now, during a time when cities and sites that consider themselves sanctuary are being threatened with de-funding and possible marshal law with the deployment of the U.S. Guard. According to Rev. Dr. Gaye W. Ortiz of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, there isn’t a sanctuary church in the state of Georgia to her knowledge. This means if Woida or an immigrant in his situation were to find him or herself homeless and stranded there is no sanctuary available to them, nor is there technically a shelter they can stay.
When speaking with a volunteer at the Garden City Mission, a homeless man named Michael from South Carolina, and Mr. Woida, the opinion that a homeless person will not go hungry in Augusta was echoed. When asked, many of the homeless men sitting outside of the Salvation Army shelter agreed. Michael, a 56 year-old homeless man from South Carolina, who did not give a last name, said that, “it is a good thing that people don’t have to waste time trying to look for food, because that is time they can go to the clinic or labor department or work a job like cutting grass or something. “
As far as other resources in Augusta that would be available to an immigrant person homeless and stranded there really aren’t any. The closest thing available is a non-profit organization called Casa de Esperanza, an outreach program managed by True North Church of North Augusta. The old paint-chipped building located in the middle of a dilapidated trailer park is the main office for the non-profit and owned by the church. The trailer park is home to the Hispanic community that the organization aims to help. The church’s website says, “The Gentry Hope Center (La Casa de Esperanza) is dedicated to providing resources and opportunities to low income and under-served individuals and families in Gentry Mobile Home Park to move towards self-sufficiency through building relationships, education, and training. According to the 2015 990 tax from filed by the national organization, Casa de Esperanza de Los Ninos, Inc., funding for this organization does not come from tax funded grants like HUD, Housing and Urban Development, but rather private foundations and endowments; therefore even if the persons they are helping does not have a legal status, Casa de Esperanza may provide help to the Latino community.
No residents of Gentry Mobile Home would speak about their circumstance. The church’s outreach minister also did not return any phone calls or emails for comment.
One of many similar trailers in Gentry Mobile Home Park.
As for Woida, he is not Hispanic and therefore this organization might not have been able to help him, but it is the closest thing to the help available if he had his situation now. Lynda Barrs said that there is talk of a low-barrier shelter being developed in the future, “but it is just in talking stage, it will be a while before Augusta gets that.” A low-barrier shelter is housing where a minimum number of expectations are placed on people who wish to live there. If Augusta would develop this type of shelter more people including undocumented immigrants, people with severe legal records, and addicts, who are prevented from staying at the current shelters, will have an opportunity for a safe place to access resources and sleep.