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Accurate count of homeless is urged

POSTED: May 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Advocates for the poor met Friday in Gainesville’s new Fair Street Neighborhood Center to discuss community issues that affect the poor and homeless in Gainesville-Hall County.

Hearing from consultants from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, food bank organizers and housing advocates, the group discussed how to reach out to the area’s homeless and those living below the federal poverty level, as well as issues advocates face when trying to help the area’s poor.

Jane Massey, a consultant for the state Department of Community Affairs’ annual homeless count, said from a one-day count of the state’s homeless population in January there were about 8,500 Georgians sleeping in an emergency shelter or transitional housing.

Massey estimates there were about 105 homeless people living "literally on the streets" in Hall County that same January night.

Massey said the estimate was too low, and said she hoped Hall County would consider doing an extensive count of the homeless next year, checking for those living in dilapidated houses, motels and tent cities.

She said such an extensive count would help advocates know who needs help and how to provide it, but the information would also help in grant applications.

Gaile Jennings, director of the Office of Workforce Housing and Quality Growth for Dalton-Whitfield County, has directed such counts in that area. She said she finds that about one-quarter of the homeless living on the street in her area are middle-aged military veterans, and many people become homeless after stints in jail.

Jennings said that 25 percent of the population in Dalton-Whitfield County is either homeless or "precariously" housed, living with family or friends or in a motel because of economic hardships. Jennings predicts that Hall County’s numbers are no different, adding that Hall County and Whitfield County have many demographic and population similarities.

"We’re like mirror cities on different ends of the state," Jennings said.

Problems with housing often come with improper nutrition, and one speaker told the audience that there are more than 30 million people in the United States living with "food insecurities." Along with that startling statistic came another: Nearly 96 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States every year.

Kay Blackstock is secretary at the North Georgia Community Foundation, a regional nonprofit organization that recently established the Georgia Mountain Food Bank to raise money for a local food distribution warehouse that would serve food pantries in the 15 counties that make up Northeast Georgia.

Blackstock said advocates have to figure out a way to stop food waste, and give surplus food to the people who need it. She shared an idea of a food cooperative, where members could volunteer their time in exchange for a box of groceries.

Phillippa Lewis-Moss, director of Gainesville’s Community Service Center, said advocates should be mindful that reported cases of neglect are not always what they seem.

Lewis-Moss said often, mothers are reported to the Department of Family and Children Services on a complaint of "neglect" for not having a fence to keep their children away from the road, or because their children lose weight as their parents try to stretch food resources.

"Oftentimes, they are criminalized for being poor," Lewis-Moss said.

Jennings said her work documenting the poor in Whitfield County has changed her life, and she said future efforts in Gainesville-Hall County will change the entire community’s view of the homeless and the working poor.

"It changes the way you look at the world," Jennings said. "It will also change your community as you share what y’all already know."



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