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Economy is filling up Gainesvilles Good News shelter
Federal report details a decrease in the homeless population in Georgia
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Jerry Blesinggame takes in the daily message during a Bible study class Tuesday at Good News at Noon. Although a national report found that homelessness declined in Georgia last year, Good News at Noon is as full as ever and seeing more homeless at the shelter every day. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Homelessness in Georgia has dropped, a federal report said last week, but Gainesville shelters are packed more than ever.

“We’re filled up here. Mucho,” said Gene Beckstein, founder and director of the Good News at Noon feeding program and homeless shelter on Davis Street. “Usually the men here are black or Hispanic, but we can see the effects of the economy because more white people who have lost their jobs are coming in here.”

More than 200 people crowd the 90-chair dining area on Thursday evenings for family night mealtime.

“They’re lined up against the walls and spilling into the back halls,” he said. “I know they don’t come here to hear me preach but to eat.”

Once attendees recite a Scripture verse, they receive a box of canned food and 20 pounds of frozen chicken. The shelter gives away about 6,000 pounds of food on Thursdays and served 40,000 meals last year.

“These people need a box of food, and if they can’t read, they bring their teenagers to say it,” Beckstein said. “This coming year, we’ll probably serve 50,000 meals.”

The numbers seem to be in contrast with the 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which found 19,095 homeless people in the state in 2008. That’s down from 19,639 in 2007.

The statistics are a bit higher for Gainesville City Baptist Rescue Mission on Main Street, but the trend is dropping a bit as some men move out, said director Ken Pullen. The shelter served 535 plates in June, up from 404 plates at this time last year, and averages about 19 men who stay each night.

“During this time of the year, some guys do move out, and some start working,” he said. “One guy moved out the other day because he had no rent money after his free week.”

Those who stay after a free period are asked to pay $7 per day for food, shelter and showers.

“Our biggest expense is milk and cereal for breakfast. Suppers are paid for by canned goods and donated meat, but donations are down,” he said.

Although donations are also down for Gainesville Action Ministries, the current problem is one of demographics.

“There aren’t enough women’s shelters,” said Sue Lane, director of the ministry. “We don’t actually shelter anyone but try to prevent eviction and keep people in their homes. We’re surprised we haven’t had more calls about power and rent because of the economy, but it does stress us to not have enough women’s shelter.”

The assessment report found that more than half of Georgia’s homeless were typically unsheltered, and the state is one of eight where the majority of homeless are unsheltered. However, the report said, warm weather may encourage homeless people to sleep outdoors. LAMP Ministries in Gainesville receives new requests each day.

“Homelessness is really not down. I had three calls today and one yesterday,” said director Mary Mauricio. “We’re not hearing just from the teens our ministry usually deals with but 18- and 20-year-old single moms. The economy has affected everyone and every organization.”

Bottomed out donations make operation extremely difficult, she said.

“We have school kids going into school and the supplies aren’t here. Children aren’t meeting the requirements when they don’t have certain supplies for their projects, and that affects their grades and education,” she said. “Instead of buying the cheapest shampoo at Wal-Mart, we buy gallons of shampoo from the Dollar Store and put it into small bottles. We do what we have to do.”

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