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As homelessness in Hall County grows, state and nonprofits reroute services to address need
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Dominique Upshur, a case manager with Hope Atlanta, takes information from a local homeless man at The Way, a mission in Gainesville, on Wed. Feb. 13. Hope Atlanta is working with Avita Community Partners to connect homeless men and women with mental health services and permanent or transitional housing options.

The growing number of homeless individuals in Hall County has caught the attention of state officials, and more resources and services are now being applied locally to assist men and women in need of mental health treatment and permanent housing.

Among the changes is the arrival this month of HOPE Atlanta, which has shifted some of its resources from Cobb County to Hall County in the face of a growing challenge.

“I see it as a great opportunity,” said Dominique Upshur, a case manager with HOPE.

Upshur said HOPE has a one-year contract to work in Hall to address homelessness, which will include visiting shelters and encampments, as well as street outreach.

The outreach includes documenting where the homeless live, how long they’ve been homeless, a mental health evaluation and work history review, according to Upshur.

Avita Community Partners, which provides mental health and supportive housing services for the homeless, has provided HOPE space to work from in its Flowery Branch administrative office.

Cindy Levi, Avita’s CEO, said her organization had been in communication with the state Department of Community Affairs and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities on how to collaborate with agencies such as HOPE and work to address homelessness in Hall County.

“When (HOPE) were looking to move … they were faced with one challenge, and that challenge was: Where could they call home base?” Levi said.

Avita already opens its training and conference rooms to community groups.

“We’ve done that for organizations in the past … when we see that they’re going to bring value to our community,” Levi said.

And working with HOPE made sense for several reasons.

“Obviously, because many individuals who are homeless also have a mental illness, they need to be connected to local treatment options,” such as Avita, Levi said. “So it seemed to be a good partnership.”  

On a recent afternoon, Upshur and his team visited The Way, a day center for the homeless located in midtown Gainesville.

Upshur conducted intake and said that about 90 percent of those he had interviewed met the criteria for mental health and housing services.

“We’re going to be up here on a consistent basis,” Upshur said. “Our goal is to link them up.”

For Ernie Riley, 47, who has been living on the streets of Gainesville for about the last five years, the presence of HOPE offers a new opportunity to resettle his life.

Riley said one of his biggest challenges has been “me not accepting my mental health issues.”

But, he added, he’s now connected with Avita and has provided information to HOPE for housing assistance.

Chandler Gaines, who volunteers at The Way and has worked with Avita extensively in the past, said he is optimistic about HOPE’s approach.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the community to join together,” he added.

And given the limited success and resources available in recent years to address homelessness locally, Gaines said, “We’re always willing to try something new.”

A recent homeless count in Hall County taken between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3 documented 56 unsheltered homeless individuals, versus just 45 in 2017.

Moreover, in 2017, more than 120 homeless individuals were counted compared with approximately 50 in 2015.

And those numbers likely do not capture the full breadth or scale of the homeless population in Hall County, according to local mission directors and community activists, considering many homeless reside in hotels at times or live in unknown encampments.

The count, when the results are officially tallied this spring, also will include men, women and children living in shelters, such as the Salvation Army and Good News at Noon.

Michael Fisher, housing program planner with Ninth District Opportunity, Inc. in Gainesville, which coordinated the homeless count, said HOPE’s arrival is a positive step forward.

“It’s definitely something that’s going to bring services that are especially needed,” he added.

However, Fisher cautioned that much more needs to be done.

The recent homeless count has revealed a “gaping hole” and sizable need for direct street outreach, Fisher said.

Historically, there has been little follow up after homeless counts, which take place every two years.

But Fisher and Ninth District are trying to change that poor tradition with a new initiative of their own.

The Department of Community Affairs has called upon groups like Ninth District, who receive funding through the state agency, to launch a project called “Coordinated Entry System,” which prioritizes needs and removes barriers to services for individuals and families in crisis, many of whom are homeless.

Fisher has branded the entry system as StreetExit on Facebook as a way to better connect with supporters and other nonprofits.

“My job has been to travel and set up meetings and speaking engagements throughout the Northeast portion of Georgia to drum up awareness, support and buy-in for the program,” he added. “I’ve been doing this for a number of months at this point.”

Fisher said Ninth District is one of just two nonprofit agencies in the state currently chosen to develop this program in a multi-county effort.

“Most others projects are taking place in one county or city,” Fisher said. “Our (Coordinated Entry System) will cover 13 counties when completed. The project is rapidly advancing in each area toward a successful completion.”

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