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Agencies work to count homeless, secure funding for programs that help them
Population hard to track due to transience
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Demetric Newberry, 33, left, and Mike Palmer, 28, hang out under the Queen City Bridge, a space where homeless people often gather.

To learn more

For more information on the homeless count, contact the Hall County Community Resource Center, 615 Oak St., Gainesville, 770-534-8826, hall@ndocsbg.org.

The past few days have broken a cold, wet spell in the region, but it’s only small relief for many of Hall County’s homeless.

Demetric Newberry will still wake up under the Queen City bridge and trudge to work at a nearby chicken plant. Mike Palmer will still walk the streets wondering what job prospects await a 20-something fresh out of jail.

But today might be worth taking note of.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs is preparing to conduct a homeless count in cooperation with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the regional Ninth District Opportunity Inc.

The count is conducted every two years, with respondents answering survey questions about their housing status.

Officials have earmarked today as the target date for this year’s count, and will collect survey information from homeless and transient individuals between Tuesday and Feb. 3, including housing status, income levels and other factors that affect living conditions.

Estimates of the state’s homeless population are based on this survey, which is then used to help determine federal funding for local homeless assistance programs.

Shanna Cotton, a coordinator with Ninth District and the Hall County Community Resource Center, said team members will canvass parts of the county in the next week to reach as many homeless individuals as possible.

Surveys will also be conducted at local churches, and at Action Ministries Gainesville on First Street.

Tallying the state’s homeless population is no back-of-the-napkin calculation. A statistical methodology is used, which includes census numbers.

There is some debate about whether to use 2010 census figures, or more up-to-date, though unofficial, 2013 estimates.

While there may not have been significant population changes in the interim years, any increase or decrease by region or state matters when money is at stake.

The homeless count is “crucial” to obtaining government funding for housing projects, Cotton said.

Don Watt, director of the state Office of Homeless and Special Needs Housing, said Georgia receives millions of dollars annually through the emergency solutions grants program, an effort to provide permanent and transitional housing for those in need.

Though receiving appropriate funding depends on an accurate survey, recent homeless counts contradict conventional wisdom in this regard.   

For example, 241 people were homeless in Hall County in 2009, either living on the streets or in shelters. That number fell to 201 in 2011, and then precipitously declined to just 57 two years ago, with only 14 individuals counted as unsheltered.

While the number of available shelter beds more than doubled between 2009 and 2011, there were actually three fewer beds in 2013, according to the survey.

Of course, these years correspond with much leaner economic times, with the recession hitting low-income and out-of-work families the hardest.

But a federal rapid rehousing program was “a key factor during the downturn in the economy,” Watt said, adding that funding for this initiative surpassed other homeless prevention programs. “It was a huge jolt for the state of Georgia.”

So funding increased as the need grew, acting as a safety net and contributing to a decline in the homeless count.

Still, homeless people are hard to track, and the survey is only an attempt to arrive near an accurate number — somewhere in the ballpark, perhaps.

Shifting from place to place and job to job, many of Gainesville’s homeless said they are repeatedly in and out of housing.

Others, faced with no good alternative, have chosen this life.

“If you don’t want to be homeless, you ain’t got to be homeless,” said Carl, as he often does, a tall, broad man in his 50s who has lived in homeless camps in Gainesville off and on for 10 years.

Meanwhile, others are squatting in abandoned homes throughout the industrial part of the city.

There’s drug addiction and mental illness. There’s also compassion, kindness and the courage to overcome.

Some who spoke with The Times recently said they don’t want to take part in the survey for fear of running afoul of the law.

Others are hoping homelessness is a passing phase.

Rodricus Cobb said his most recent homeless stint began about four weeks ago, but the soft-spoken 36-year-old said he is hoping he’ll be able to save enough money working in metal roofing to move into an apartment soon.

Several other men, however, said they would participate in the survey if given the opportunity to be counted among their brethren of the streets.

“It’s people all across the world that’s homeless,” Newberry said.

But in the next breath, Newberry expressed his skepticism for what good the homeless count might do.

“If you want anything out there, if you want to better your life, that’s the way to go right there,” he said, pointing down the gravel entrance to the homeless camp, admitting his struggle with alcohol. “Up that road.”

The survey is completely anonymous, but the benefits the homeless stand to gain are already being seen, Carl said.

“There’s more places we can go,” he added, more beds available and more charitable giving of late. “Yeah, I see it.”

For more information on the homeless count, contact the Hall County Community Resource Center, 615 Oak St., Gainesville, 770-534-8826, hall@ndocsbg.org.

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