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Number of homeless in Hall likely up, but annual count canceled amid COVID-19 concerns
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Three men stand outside The Way on April 2, 2020, in Gainesville prior to lunch service at the homeless ministry. - photo by Scott Rogers

A biannual count of homeless people in many areas of the state has been canceled due to COVID-19.

The count, which is organized by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, was canceled to protect the homeless and volunteers who intended to participate, said Michael Fisher, housing manager for Ninth District Opportunity. Ninth District serves Hall and surrounding counties. 

The count aims to get a point-in-time measure of homelessness to help determine how to divvy up state money for programs that help the homeless.

“It was canceled statewide, and it was specifically related to the dramatic COVID increase,” Fisher said. 

DCA says the entire count was not canceled, as the agency will still conduct a count of sheltered homeless staying in emergency shelter and transitional housing programs. 

The state has seen a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and Northeast Georgia Health System reported early this month that its emergency department was so overwhelmed, some patients had to be treated in ambulances outside its Gainesville hospital. 

The health system set a record for COVID-19 patients being treated at its facilities, 355 patients, on Jan. 8. On Friday, Jan. 15, the system reported it was treating 325 patients.

Hall’s homeless count was scheduled for Jan. 25 through Feb. 7 and would have gathered advocates and volunteers to sweep the county, searching for those living in unfit conditions or without shelter in Hall. 

County programs will still receive funding, but this year, Fisher said, Hall could receive less of that money than it should because of the cancellation.

“It’s going to harm us. We’re not going to come out the way we should,” he said. “We’ve been putting a lot of work into advance planning and preparation for this … count. … And we kind of already know what this count’s going to be, and we know it’s above what it was last time.”

Fisher estimated the number of homeless in the county has increased from 57 people without shelter in 2019 to the 80s or 90s this year. He said there are about 19 homeless encampments in Gainesville alone.

The increase is caused by multiple factors, including housing affordability, he said, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated housing insecurity and other issues.

“They all compound one another,” he said.

Though the count has been canceled, Fisher said Ninth District Opportunity will continue with its street outreach program, providing food and supplies to the homeless population, as well as working to provide transitional housing. 

“This week, we’ve moved two families into permanent housing who were previously homeless,” he said, adding that the program also aims to find them work.

He also said the organization will still host an event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 26 at The Way shelter, on Bradford Street in Gainesville, offering meals, job training, phone and food stamp help, assistance with Social Security and disability benefits and other programs.

Fisher emphasized that event is open only for homeless people. 

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