Hall County resident Carol Werner knows what it’s like to lose everything.
The housing market crash and Great Recession hit her finances hard, then her nerves.
“I had a ... breakdown,” she said during an emotional speech before the Hall County Board of Commissioners last month. “I was penniless. I was homeless and mentally compromised.”
Werner, a former auditor with Ernst & Young, lived in a car for some time, then a hotel, and took advantage of local resources and services to get back on her feet, she said.
Werner also got to know other homeless people in Gainesville and now has become an advocate for those living on the streets.
“We need to help them get their lives in order,” she told Hall officials. “It’s not that people in the community don’t want to help.”
Local government, however, largely shies away from funding homeless programs.
But as this population grows, becomes more concentrated and public costs rise, officials are taking a harder look at their responsibility.
“Governments can help consolidate resources and help bring people together,” Gainesville Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said.
According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 20 percent of the national homeless population is deemed chronically homeless. That percentage in Georgia increased to 16 percent of the total homeless population in 2015 from 13 percent in 2013.
Hall is just one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015.
Nonprofits bear burden
Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, has estimated that there are between 200 and 400 homeless individuals in the county at any given time, with about 1 in 5 of those chronically homeless.
Moss has developed an online resource directory logging the shelters and assistance programs that serve the local homeless.
The Hall County and Gainesville governments provide some support for local public health and mental health programs, as well as funding for Meal on Wheels, the Senior Life Center and housing redevelopment initiatives.
But that’s about the extent of local government’s involvement in programs that either aim to prevent homelessness or serve those on the streets. The lion’s share of keeping the homeless fed and clothed falls on local nonprofits and shelters. Jerry Deyton, who founded The Way ministry in the industrial area of Gainesville, said he feeds up to 75 homeless and hungry a day, for example.
Action Ministries, Inc., AVITA Community Partners and the Ninth District Opportunity, Inc. receive funding from the state Department of Community Affairs, according to Tina Moore, continuum of care program coordinator.
Action Ministries also receives funding through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program for former service members who are homeless in Hall.
But that leaves missions like Good News at Noon, Set Free and others perpetually calling for donations.
Though some municipal and county governments across the country operate or provide direct funding to shelters and other homeless service programs, the biggest impact local governments tend to have comes in the form of leadership.
By applying for grant funding, organizing nonprofits dedicated to supporting the homeless, and working closely with local health and law enforcement, local governments can contribute without putting a significant burden on taxpayers.
Gainesville officials said they want to help maximize established programs, and encourage others to join the cause, without having to fund operations.
“I think the churches need to take a more proactive stance toward it,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said.
And there is no desire for Werner’s calls to use the old county jail on Main Street in Gainesville as a new shelter, though Hall Commissioner Scott Gibbs said he would be willing to approve $50,000 in operational support.
Gainesville officials said they plan on having the jail redeveloped, perhaps into a mixed-use site that could be a catalyst for more businesses and residents to locate in midtown.
“I would like to use government as a last resort,” Councilman George Wangemann said of the city’s involvement in homeless programs. “This would be a never-ending cycle.”
Mental health care lacking
But Werner said the infrastructure demands of the local community require more support — from government, nonprofits, churches and residents.
This was evident to her when the homeless camp under the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville flooded last fall, creating a public health threat and displacing those living there.
“I saw and smelled the horrible conditions these human beings are living in,” Werner said. “We need to have money in our budget to help meet the needs of these people. They are a part of us.”
Bruner said getting a better handle on the specific needs of the homeless and what types of services each person needs is a critical place to start when trying to improve how resources are delivered.
“Probably a large percentage of our homeless have mental health issues,” Bruner said, adding that mental health services in Hall and around the country are a “disgrace.”
For Gainesville officials, the desire to address homelessness comes with many motivations. After all, the financial burden and social consequences are largely theirs. Area homeless typically reside within the city limits, where public transport, nonprofits and sporadic work can be found.
Moreover, Flowery Branch and Oakwood passed ordinances last year prohibiting “sleeping in public” and panhandling, which federal HUD officials said criminalizes homelessness and could result in less funding for local programs.
The chronically homeless are costly to support. HUD estimates the annual cost is between $30,000 and $50,000 per person resulting from emergency room visits and incarceration.
The need is great, Wangemann said, but local resources are often duplicated and inefficient.
Communication between providers needs to improve, but Wangemann acknowledges that this is easier said than done.
Local nonprofit leaders who work with the homeless were brought together about 10 years ago with a similar goal in mind.
“But we never really got everything coordinated,” Wangemann said. “Everybody wanted to serve a different type of homeless person. And that’s the problem.”