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Better coordinated services may help curb growing homeless population
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A small room with a window and door constructed under the Queen City Parkway bridge keeps one homeless person out of the elements.

Home in hard places

A series on affordable housing issues in Hall County and Gainesville. See more stories, interactive maps, videos and a list of resources at the above link.

A renewed focus on homelessness in Gainesville comes just as the population of those living on the streets grows beyond the resources available to serve them.

“I think this has been an on-again, off-again issue in the community,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “I think the resources are here to address some of the needs of the homeless in the area.”

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.

But that figure only hints at the problem.

Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, said there are between 200 and 400 homeless individuals in the county at any given time.

Some are in shelters. Some live under bridges. Others camp behind retail stores and other places of business. Some even have turned storage units into makeshift apartments.

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And others bounce back and forth from an apartment or home to the streets.

As the Georgia Department of Community Affairs reports, “Georgia’s homeless population isn’t static.”

Rodricus Cobb, for example, has been in and out of housing for several years, working odd jobs when he can find them and living under the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville when times get tough.

Housing affordability has also been a plague for many homeless unable to transition permanently from the streets.

Many local homeless actually work in local poultry plants or as day laborers on construction sites.

“It is likely that 10 to 20 percent of our existing homeless population is, in fact, chronically homeless,” Moss said. “These are people struggling with multiple conditions, such as mental illness and substance abuse, which have also experienced multiple episodes of homelessness for a year or more.”

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 in Georgia.

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.

Moreover, Moss said that although the percent of chronically homeless individuals is relatively small, “national data shows that this group typically exhausts more than 50 percent of a community’s homeless resources.”

Aiding this subset of the homeless population, and making programs more cost-effective, will take better coordination among resource agencies, Moss said.

Shifting from place to place and job to job, the homeless can simply be hard to track.

And while some local shelters receive some state and federal support, no local government provides any operational assistance.

“There are no homeless assistance programs run solely by the government in our community,” Moss said. “All programs are provided through nonprofit groups or individual ministries.”

Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey said that while officials want to help facilitate new efforts to address local homelessness, “we can’t take care of (funding). We don’t have the resources, and it would be short-lived.”

HOW WE GOT HERE

Homeless advocates have for years said the growing number of people living on the streets across the United States is a result of cuts to federal programs supporting affordable housing, substance abuse treatment and mental health clinics.

And the consequences for public health and safety become evident, for example, when homeless camps flood after heavy rains, as was the case with the Queen City Bridge encampment in Gainesville late last year.

In Hall County, however, other factors also are at play.

New York, as he is known by his friends on the street, came to the area after first relocating to Atlanta from the Empire State.

When he lost his job and his family life corroded, New York said he made his way to Gainesville after hearing about the good job prospects in local poultry and manufacturing plants.

This is a common experience among many of Gainesville’s homeless. From Florida and California they have come, only to fall through the cracks when times get tough.

New York said he never was able to get ahead financially, and injuries and illnesses sent him spinning from one job to the next before seemingly permanently into the streets.

“I recognize that some of our homeless population was attracted to our community with a promise of full employment,” Moss said. “Our relatively low unemployment rate makes Gainesville-Hall County an attractive place for job seekers, but I would caution individuals and organizations against encouraging individuals outside of our community to come here unless they have the proper social supports in place should the employment opportunity fall through.”

Jerry Deyton, pastor of The Way mission and ministry in Gainesville, said the problems of a growing homeless population are exacerbated by the fact the area’s resources are disconnected.

“Everybody can’t get to these resources,” he added. “We’ve got to have a place where we can house them. I want to do away with tent cities.”

Deyton, who described his service to the city’s homeless as a “calling from God,” said he believes the residents will support his efforts to open a new shelter this year.

“This community pours their heart out,” he said. “I think the churches will stand behind me.”

WHERE THE FUTURE LIES

The first step in the new effort to reduce homelessness begins with Moss’ plan to develop a comprehensive resource directory, which will be available online.

She is issuing a survey to local service providers to collect important information such as an inventory of beds and the availability of supportive services like food programs, legal assistance, detox services and financial aid.

“The challenge we’ve had in the past with ‘paper’ directories is that they quickly become outdated,” Moss said. “It is also my desire to call a meeting of homeless service providers so that they can meet and discuss ways that they can increase coordination.”

City officials also acknowledged the need for public participation, through resource and job fairs or charity.

Wangemann and Lackey said it’s important to get the right people talking, linking groups and agencies, and ending the sometimes disparate ways resources are distributed.

Across the United States, local communities and states are looking at novel solutions to their own growing homeless populations.

For example, Utah has reduced its chronically homeless population of 2,000 by 91 percent in recent years thanks to the advent of a program known as Housing First.

Whereas many shelters and programs for homeless require these individuals to get sober, find a job or meet other requirements before receiving housing assistance, the Housing First initiative flips this paradigm on its head.

Advocates say it works because housing provides the stability homeless people need to adequately address their substance abuse problems, find work and repair family relationships.

Removing barriers and front-end requirements to housing has given a lift to the most vulnerable individuals in Utah, state officials contend.

Then there’s the tiny home movement, which first gained popularity in recent years among those individuals looking to downsize into cozy places with just a few hundred square feet.

Seattle recently opened a tiny home village for the homeless. The costs to construct are modest, homeless pay for utilities, and drugs and alcohol are prohibited at the site.

Moreover, the village allows resource providers to better track the homeless and provide them with the services they need to stay off the streets.

And Fresno, Calif., recently changed its land-use ordinances to allow for tiny homes on residential properties.

“With all of the resources available to us, there’s just no reason why a group of dedicated professionals can’t address this important issue,” Moss said.