Catherine Chapman, with her granddaughter in tow collecting stickers and other freebies, strolled along the footpath at Longwood Park in Gainesville on Saturday, June 22, unsure about what kind of assistance she might find for repairs needed to her home.
“I’m just getting some information,” she said.
Chapman came to the right place.
Though marketed as a housing festival, Saturday’s event was also an opportunity for a number of different social service providers – including nonprofits, churches and local government agencies – to educate the public about how to access local resources.
Businesses were also on hand.
Along her path, for example, Chapman learned how she might cut her energy costs from representatives of Georgia Power, and spoke with employees of the Salvation Army about the nonprofit’s rent and utility assistance programs.
Employment information, such as workforce development and continuing education programs, were also available to attendees.
And the Gainesville police and fire departments were on hand to educate kids about safety at home.
The event was hosted by the Gainesville-Hall County team for the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing, a statewide organization focusing on housing and revitalization. The local team has representatives from governments, organizations, citizens and nonprofits.
Workshops at the park’s pavilion aimed to educate attendees on credit counseling and homebuyer education, as well as fair housing laws and local children’s programs.
Jessica Tullar, Gainesville’s special projects manager, said the festival was “an opportunity, in a fun way, to give the community an opportunity to connect with resources.”
Chad McCranie, a staff attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program, which has a branch in Gainesville, said the variety of different resource providers on hand at the festival reflected the way local agencies work with one another to “piece together resources.”
Georgia Legal Services, for example, operates an eviction prevention program aimed at helping low-income families remain in their homes.
McCranie said communities like Gainesville have to take their own steps to address affordable housing needs and related issues, such as transportation and emergency shelter options for low-income families.
Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, said agencies cannot operate in a silo to address these issues.
“It helps us to talk to other” providers, she added.
A lot has changed in the six years since the last similar housing festival was held.
Across the nation, an affordable housing crunch in the rental market has made it difficult for low- and middle-income families to find suitable housing, straining budgets and contributing to a growing number of homeless families.
More than 50 percent of all renters in Gainesville, for example, are considered “cost-burdened,” according to census figures, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
And more than 60 percent of all households in the city limits are renter-occupied.
These numbers reveal a major need in the community to connect individuals with housing assistance, “but also other resources that help people once they get housing, whether that’s home ownership or renting,” Tullar said.
A few homeless families were assisted at the festival.
Joanne Capies, who leads the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gainesville with her husband, Jack, said a young couple with two children told her their family had recently been evicted.
Capies then connected the family with representatives from the Salvation Army, which has shelter apartments for families.
Capies said St. Vincent, the church’s social service arm, would provide the family food and pay for their stay at the shelter.
Capies said St. Vincent will also be delivering beds and furniture next week to several families who attended the festival.
“What an amazing day!” Capies said. “I told Jack, God sent us to be a vendor today.”
Beth Oropeza, manager of the United Way of Hall County’s Compass Center, said she also connected with a homeless family and helped point them to immediate resources.
“It was a great opportunity for us to learn more about what others are doing and to put names and faces with agencies, but we also wanted to reach out to potential clients and offer hope,” Oropeza said. “I think that happened.”