Invisible in the 'Burbs

part I

Hurdles inhibit local woman to seek out assistance

By Kathleen Sturgeon - May 25, 2017

Although there are agencies in the community to help homeless people, single mothers often face special problems.

Take the case of Corrine Hooks, a 40-year-old mother of three.

For years, Hooks didn’t have a steady place to live. From 2009-12, the single mother with three children under 17 moved around trying to find assistance for her family.

She was pregnant with her third child when she and her son moved to a shelter in Atlanta. But, she was soon told she couldn’t return after she gave birth.

“They said because I had to have bedrest for six weeks, they wouldn’t be able to house me,” Hooks, 40, an assistant teacher, said. “I had no place else to go. I went and stayed with a few family members here and there and ended up staying with my sister. She gave me a limit of how long I could stay until it was enough.”

After that, she was referred to various nonprofit organizations, but she either didn’t qualify, couldn’t meet the minimum work requirements due to her children or had something else come up forcing her to quit the programs. 

With her older son now a teenager, many organizations are unable to help the family due to stipulations for adult males housed with children.

Oddly, because Hooks has no substance abuse problem and isn’t in a domestic violence situation, her choices were limited. 

“You have whole families, not just single parents, who are homeless,” Hooks said. “Not because they chose to be, but because they ran into circumstances beyond their control that put them in a position where they can’t do anything to help themselves. They just need a leg up sometimes.”

And even when things were looking up for the family, it seemed like something always got in the way.

Her children became sick from a dilapidated apartment they were living in, and she had to care for them, forcing her to cut work hours and earn less money.

She took on a part-time job driving for Uber which supplemented the income for a time, but it didn’t last long because of the sick children. 

After everyone recovered, Hooks started to save money again and things began looking up for the family, until she hit a rough patch again.

The hotel manager where she was staying then referred her to North Fulton Community Charities. The nonprofit ended up paying weeks of her rent and helped her finalize the process for her own apartment, which her family has been in since March 24.

“Most resources out there give you a limit where you can’t come back for six months or a year,” Hooks said. “North Fulton doesn’t do that. There are no other programs that I know of out there like North Fulton. They stand out among the rest.”

Barbara Duffy, executive director for North Fulton Community Charities, said they repeatedly see cases similar to Hooks. 

Churches, power companies and landlords often refer people in need to the Roswell nonprofit, so it frequently becomes a starting point for them.

They are able to suggest programs or organizations for help, but sometimes folks are not eligible, just like Hooks, Duffy said.

They see the same people return, and sometimes for different reasons.

“When we first see them they may need lots of help,” Duffy said. “Then as things get better, they may continue to come to stretch their income, use the thrift shop and perhaps get food to help reduce some of their expenses. So that way the money they do have can take care of the basic bills like rent and utilities.”

No matter their circumstances or history, Duffy said she wants people like Hooks to continue to be directed to North Fulton. 

“They’re part of our community,” Duffy said. “Something has happened to them. All of us have been in a place in our life where we needed to reach out. When help is there, then we can continue to move forward.”

Situations like this aren’t just a North Fulton problem, Hooks said, but a worldwide issue. 

When society turns its focus beyond those with mental issues, substance abuse problems or domestic violence situations, inroads can be made to eliminate homelessness.

“There are underlying impacts,” Hooks said. “If they find out the root cause, we can eliminate this. There is no reason for this.”

A community that makes provisions for those most vulnerable improves the quality of life for everyone, Duffy said, a trait she thinks makes North Fulton successful.

“It’s a true community engagement,” Duffy said. “We’ve been able to come together, work on a need that we’ve identified and make life a little bit better. We live in a great community.”

Hooks was fortunate to find her way to North Fulton Community Charities.

Unfortunately, she is the exception of a working mother trying to find help.

BY THE NUMBERS:

In January, a homeless count was conducted in Fulton County. In North Fulton, 32 individuals were found on the streets or in cars. Of those counted outside, 24 were men, 5 women and 2 children. They ranged from a man who had just become homeless the day before to another who said he had been homeless for 10 years. North Fulton Community Charities paid hotel fees for 10 families that night sheltering 17 individuals. 

• From October to December 2016, North Fulton Community Charities saw 2,012 households that came for service.

• Of those, 193 households said they were homeless, or 355 individuals, including 122 children.

• 1 out of every 10 who came to NFCC over that three-month period considered themselves homeless.

part ii

‘You shouldn’t be fighting this hard for basic needs’

By Kathleen Sturgeon - February 8, 2018

ROSWELL, Ga. — On a near-freezing night in late-January, a small group of volunteers and one Roswell Police Officer found a group of three men outside the Shell gas station off Holcomb Bridge Road.

The men, surrounded by a few bags filled with all of their worldly belongings, were but a portion of the 39 people located that night during the annual Point in Time Homeless Count.

“I’m just trying to not die,” said Guillermo Ammon, 36. “I go to jail just to live a few more months. It’s really sad how many homeless people are out there. It’s out of control.”

Just three years ago, Ammon said he had a steady, well-paying job. But he began struggling with drugs and alcohol and ultimately faced felony charges and was put on probation. When he landed in Roswell, life didn’t get any easier.

After stealing a tent from Walmart because he “had no other option,” he fell and hit his head twice during a recent cold spell. After he was released from the hospital, he was so frustrated with being homeless he went to a Waffle House and begged them to call the cops on him. He tried a number of ways to get arrested, including drinking in front of the police and asking if he had a warrant out for him, but the cops didn’t budge.

Eventually, the officers had to take him to a psychiatric hospital after he threatened suicide. He stayed there for six days before he was out on the street again.

“You shouldn’t be fighting that hard for basic needs,” he said. “They gave me about 30 numbers to call for homeless shelters. I called almost all and couldn’t get in anywhere. I had already talked to half of them.”

Back on the streets, Ammon tries often to get employment. He walks to Home Depot to see if he can get a job working day labor.

This is often successful until his bad luck comes into play. Recently, he was in the parking lot walking to the store when he was struck by a pickup truck.

The driver paid him $350 and Ammon took it to a Super 8 hotel where he stayed for four nights. When his money ran out, he was homeless again and ended up at the Shell gas station, planning to stay in a nearby shed for the foreseeable future.

This story is not uncommon for Metro Atlanta’s homeless.

Where to go on a cold night

During the annual count, Roswell Police Officer Samuel Wolfson said police will often find the majority of the people sleeping in their cars. Many have jobs, but can’t afford to live in the area.

While the police can’t force anyone to go anywhere, local businesses sometimes allow the homeless to come inside and warm up, especially when nighttime temperatures drop below freezing.

“On a colder night, there are fewer (homeless people) out,” Wolfson said. “They get to their spots and burrow in early like 5 p.m. before the sun sets because it’s safe and warmer. They go through the dumpster to find warm things like cardboard. Public restrooms are also used because they’re mostly heated and unlocked at night. But some of those are starting to get locked overnight due to getting vandalized.”

While Wolfson keeps up with the local homeless population, he did not know the three men his group found. Other participating law enforcement faced similar situations that night, with one officer only recognizing one of the 10 homeless people his group found.

Most of the 39 homeless people counted that night were males between 21 and 60-years-old, according to North Fulton Community Charities Executive Director Barbara Duffy.

The count is mandated nationally through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of their homeless services program.

“Unsheltered homeless people are an important subpopulation of homeless persons and their characteristics and needs must be accommodated within any strategy to reduce homelessness,” the department said in a guide for counting unsheltered people. “Collecting good baseline data about this subpopulation is essential to understanding the causes of homelessness and to designing effective responses, and can be used as a basis for comparison in future years.”

By completing the count, groups like NFCC receive funding, which the organization uses to hire a fulltime social worker dedicated to the homeless.

To coordinate funding, the Fulton County Homeless Continuum of Care was created. Because the county is so vast, the counts and care are split between north and south with NFCC as the base site for the northern portion of the county. The City of Atlanta has its own program.

This year, the 26 volunteers gathered at NFCC ventured out into the dark and cold side streets, alleyways and behind buildings in Roswell, Alpharetta, Milton, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.

The volunteers included five police officers from Alpharetta and Roswell, along with a few formerly homeless individuals who provided some idea of where the homeless typically are located, so they led most groups.

An undercounted population

This year’s count of 39 found was “disappointing,” Duffy said, but she added that could be due to the cold weather, because some might have been in bars or gas stations warming up.

“We know it’s an undercount because we are seeing a significant number in regular business,” Duffy said. “We did 45 hotel stays in January. Part of that is it was cold and we were more likely to get folks housed if we knew they didn’t have a place. It is a high number for us to spring for a hotel because it’s not a good solution. It only buys a few days and it doesn’t solve anything other than getting them out of the cold.”

For 2017, 494 households, made up of 757 people and 198 kids, visited North Fulton Community Charities for some form of assistance.

Of that, 12 percent of the total number of households NFCC interacted with were homeless.

In 2016, the homeless represented about 10 percent of the households who came to NFCC for help. In 2015, that number was 7 percent, so it’s climbing, Duffy said.

“We aren’t unique with the big undercount,” Duffy said. “Everybody probably feels the same. If we were to count when the weather was nice, we might see more people out and about. But would the passion that goes with worrying about this population be there if it’s 70 degrees? This is when it’s most important that folks are served, when it’s cold.”

The federal government is moving away from funding shelters, she said, because they believe it’s better to put someone into long-term housing immediately.

She thinks that is risky because many of these people often aren’t financially able to maintain that situation.

“Many folks who’ve become homeless have so many issues, so there needs to be this in-between step where they get temporary housing and the services they get with it, then move slowly toward independence,” she said.

How to address the issue

The North Fulton Poverty Task Force, a group created primarily to lessen homelessness, is working on a variety of ways to combat the problem. It suggests an immediate housing center that would include a comprehensive assessment and referrals to local housing. If there weren’t any current referrals, the homeless could sleep in the center that night until a placement can be arranged.

The shelter center is currently in the works, she said, while they’re deciding who should take that on — a business or group already working with the homeless, or something new entirely.

For the center to be successful at all, she said the community needs to be willing to accept it, an issue often encountered in North Fulton.

First, they need to be knowledgeable about the need, she said.

“It’s really easy to live in North Fulton and not have any concept of the scope of the homelessness in our own community,” Duffy said. “We have been using our efforts to share that information with those who will listen and building support. We anticipate there could be some folks who agree with the concept that it’s needed but ‘I don’t want it in my community or close to here.’ Any documentation, like the count, that we can put together will build the support. We need all of our community together.”

Part III

Beats the Streets focuses on helping those hidden in plain sight through community

By Kathleen Sturgeon - June 22, 2018

NORTH FULTON, Ga. — If “it takes a village to raise a child,” those without traditional support systems can face a real challenge.

For homeless individuals who lack a community of support, finding a path to success can be all but impossible.

That’s where local faith-based nonprofit Beats the Streets comes in. The group provides emotional, mental, spiritual and career development resources to help homeless men and women in North Fulton. These individuals are given the chance to transform their lives through a self-sustainable plan for the future.

CEO Quincy Jones said the organization reaches out to those in need in the community through their faith.

“Human beings are the greatest gift on the planet,” Jones said. “No matter who you are, what you’re doing, your vocation, where you come from or your age, I believe the value you get from sharing with an individual is irreplaceable. Whether it is faith-based or not, it’s undeniable the energy shared between individuals and the value of a life is huge.”

After someone is accepted, given clothing and other essentials, the greatest value a homeless person gets from that exchange is being able to understand when the giver looked at them, they saw someone who is equally as valuable as they are, he said.

“When you’re homeless, you’re seen as lesser than a house pet,” Jones said. “They may be shy, but once they realize someone wants to connect with them, they light up. They realize the person sees them. There is nothing that can replace that. Who knows what can be done when someone takes that and can empower someone else? We all have things going on, but the results of a ripple effect of just being kind can go so far.”

The group gets that message out by partnering with local churches, including Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church. Earlier this month, the two organizations hosted a cookout for area homeless, offering a day of food, fun and fellowship.

“It was a time to offer community,” Jones said. “When you’re working with the homeless and people in critical need, it’s good to serve and give things. But, just like any human, it can be hard to find a community. The main thing about this event was getting a bunch of people together. We also offered clothing, gifts and business clothes for those who need it. It was fun to do.”

Since 2015, Beats the Streets has focused on that mission to bring community to the streets. Over time, the nonprofit has assisted some 300 people.

They provide job training, placement and assist with housing. Jones said they work with the homeless population to connect them with jobs. The group will pay for housing for a month or so while the person begins their job. Then, once more stable, the person will reimburse Beats the Streets and continue working toward self-sufficiency, he said.

Along with it, they try to get the community involved by asking for donations for clothing, food and children’s toys.

But, the main focus is meeting the homeless community.

“In downtown Atlanta, homeless people are everywhere,” Jones said. “But in North Fulton, there are hundreds of homeless people. They’re hard to find. You have to locate them. They’re living in trees and behind restaurants. We make it a point to go and find them.”

At the June gathering, the group served more than 70 people. That included volunteers providing transportation.

Beats the Streets visits locations popular among the homeless, chats up the regulars and welcomes newcomers into the community.

The area around the Walmart off Windward Parkway is one hotspot for the homeless, and Jones said they have seen people living among the surrounding trees. The organization distributes “Bags of Hope,” packages filled with various items including socks, ChapStick and toiletries.

Distributing the bags helps the organization choose one or two “ambassadors” to pass the word along that there is a group willing to help them.

At times, the group teams up with other nonprofits, such as North Fulton Community Charities. Together, the organizations have been able to help over 700 people in the area, including, many children who are at local high schools.

“The number fluctuates because when you’re talking about school kids, a lot of them are couch surfing,” Jones said. “Maybe their parents got divorced and they want to hop around, not necessarily by choice. When you take into account the high school kids, there’s a lot going on around here.”

Jones would not call the homeless situation an epidemic, but it’s more prevalent than expected. Often, the high schoolers Beats the Streets work with will be displaced temporarily, but it can lead to a long-term situation.

“A lot of times, we’ll see kids who start on a friend’s couch and then another friend’s couch,” Jones said. “Once that goes on for so long … it easily turns to maybe a discomfort with the situation or the parent wants to tell the other parent the kid is estranged. So you wind up with a good amount of kids, unfortunately, spending the night at a park or outside. It’s tricky how it unfolds for a high schooler. But, it is happening. It’s more than you think.”

In addition to the school-aged population, Jones said they work with a lot of single men over the age of 30.

“When you think about shelters, homes or places that offer assistance, they’re going to single women and mothers of children first,” he said. “That makes sense. But, there isn’t a lot for a male … We see a lot of males in this area because out here there isn’t really anywhere for them to go.”

Jones said he’s often met with shock when describing the plight of the homeless to other community groups.

“They say, ‘is it really that bad?’” Jones said. “Thankfully, the Alpharetta Police Department is great. We work directly with them. A lot of times they will reach out to us and let us know that someone is somewhere. That way they don’t have to take them in or have an altercation. They care and that’s great.”

One of the biggest problems, he said, is actually finding this hidden population.

“Out here, it’s hard to find,” he said. “We’ll have people come and serve with us who said they have no idea that there was a homeless population out here. It’s right under your nose.”

One telltale sign would be those walking down the street with large backpacks.

“The good thing is, when people become aware, they’re so taken aback they want to help immediately,” Jones said. “They will jump into action. We see people not wanting to look at it, but more often than not, they don’t want it to happen anywhere. So once they see it, they say, ‘we have to do something.’”

To learn more about Jones’ organization, visit beatsthestreets.org.