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Advocates, volunteers prep for Gainesville homeless count in coming weeks
A homeless encampment in the woods near the Queen City bridge in Gainesville is shown. The 2021 point-in-time homeless count will be conducted Jan. 25 through Feb. 7. Provided by Michael Fisher

When Michael Fisher read the reports of a possibly homeless man found dead Dec. 20 behind a Browns Bridge Road business in Gainesville, he started to think about the people that vanish without a trace.

“I’m actually shocked that we don’t hear more about it, don’t find more about it,” said Fisher, the housing/program planner for Ninth District Opportunity. “We go to these camps every week … and there are people who disappear and then we don’t see them for weeks on end. Some of them don’t return.”

Fisher and others will be taking part in the biannual point-in-time homeless count Jan. 25 through Feb. 7. The count is through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to get a glimpse of the numbers of people without a home across the state.

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More people being found can lead to more resources in the area, Fisher said.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of Community Affairs extended the counting window to 14 days and asked people in high-risk groups for the virus to not participate in street count activities.

“Count coordinators are not required to conduct an overnight count on Jan. 25, 2021,” according to the department. “Instead, they may choose to focus on counting in known locations, and at locations where people experiencing homelessness access services throughout the count window. All surveys, regardless of when they are conducted, will assess where the respondent was sleeping on the night of Jan. 25, 2021.”

Fisher said they are trying to hold an event Jan. 26 at The Way on Bradford Street with food, medical providers and advocates for Medicare and disability.

Jerry Deyton, who operates The Way, said the hope was to bring homeless people in the community together, provide them with assistance and help out with the count.

“When you’re out there on the streets, you ain’t got no information,” Deyton said. “You ain’t got no good address. You don’t have a telephone. You can’t get any of this stuff done.”

Fisher said the numbers have grown every time the count has performed, with 149 homeless tallied in the 2019 count. The timing of the count, however, can lead to an undercount that Fisher estimated to be roughly half what the numbers should be.

“The problem is when the count is done the way it is historically done where we’re going out at night, going out in the middle of the winter, you’re just not going to find the people,” he said. “They’re settled in for the evening. They’re barricaded. They’re hidden. That’s what they do. That’s how they survive.”

The Rev. Stephen Samuel, pastor at St. John Baptist Church, said he has participated in roughly a decade’s worth of homeless mission outreach, but this year will be his first time participating in the count.

“Because of what we’re all dealing with, sometimes it becomes so easy to focus on our issues … that when the idea came up and (Fisher) mentioned it, honestly it just struck my heart to be honest with you,” Samuel said. “That is a part of our population that we just have to make sure that we keep forever conscious of and are always vigilant to remember.”

Though still in the planning stage, Fisher and others have discussed having a memorial service “for the unknown” to bring awareness “about the plight of our homeless that are overlooked, unknown and basically uncared for.”

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