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How one homeless Hall County family struggles, and how you can help
Homeless family
Caleb MaGaw hugs his mother, Jenny, at Marina Park on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. The MaGaw family is homeless and has been sleeping at campgrounds since about January while Caleb continues to attend West Hall Middle School. - photo by Austin Steele

Scott Magaw is not a statistic, if only because everyone’s story is different.

But the 44-year-old military veteran shares one thing with an estimated 553,742 Americans: homelessness.

And he is one of an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans.

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness increased for the first time since 2010.

And about 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness resulting from poverty.

And there’s one more unfortunate statistic Magaw falls into.

As of 2017, 184,661 families with children were experiencing homelessness, whether sheltered or unsheltered, just like Magaw’s.

Magaw and his wife, Jenny, 40, also a veteran of the conflict in Bosnia in the late 1990s, have two sons.

Caleb, 13, is in the eighth grade at a Hall County middle school. Taylor, 16, is in 11th grade at a Hall County high school.  

The family has been sleeping in tents in campgrounds around Lake Lanier, and sometimes with friends for brief stints, since last January.

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Taylor MaGaw, left, holds his mother's hand while speaking about how his family's homelessness affects his life at Marina Park on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. The MaGaw family is homeless and has been sleeping at campgrounds since about January while Taylor continues to attend West Hall High School. - photo by Austin Steele

“We’ll probably end up back out camping” if things don’t change soon, Scott said. “We’re still just kind of plugging away at it.”

How the Magaws came to be homeless is a long and winding road that includes a lost job; an inability to qualify for food stamps or cash assistance; veterans’ disabilities issues; the death of family members and the loss of that support network; then another lost job, an eviction when rent couldn’t be paid, followed by the repossession of their car.

“It was literally like we’re going to be out this month or next,” Jenny said. “We made them evict because at least it meant another night under a roof.”

It’s left the family in limbo. 

“It’s been one closed door after another,” Scott said. “At this time, we are extremely frustrated by the lack of support for a family of two disabled combat veterans who are desperately trying to keep our family intact.”

The family said they have a monthly income of about $1,100, which provides for food, clothing, health needs and other basics, but little for saving.

The Magaws, however, have received support from Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch, as well as from Stephen McGruder, who works for the Georgia Department of Labor as a disabled veteran outreach program specialist.

“Stephen has been diligently trying to help us out,” Scott said.

McGruder provides ongoing case management for the family, who he describes as living in a unique situation.

“I always talk about military people … we all learn to be a part of a team,” McGruder said. “We don’t really want to depend on anyone else because we’re trying to uphold our own responsibilities. I think that’s what happened. They were putting themselves second. Had they come to me earlier, we might have been able to help a lot sooner.”

Many low-income families simply lack the knowledge of what resources are available.

“(The family) is in the storm and I’m on the outside,” McGruder said, and he understands it can be difficult to see a way out of the storm when you’re caught up in it.  

“I really assist and track their progress,” McGruder said. “I want them to be a success story.”

Veterans Community Resource Fair

What: American Legion annual fair where agencies offer free services and assistance, such as food, clothing, coats and gloves, health screenings, public assistance, Social Security, community pantries, legal services, substance abuse services and veterans services. 

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3

Where: St. John Baptist Church, 757 EE Butler Parkway in Gainesville

The biggest obstacles the family faces are finding affordable housing, access to personal or public transportation, and steady employment, McGruder said.

“And without one or the other, they’re going to fail,” he added. “If you have two and not the third, it’s going to eventually come apart.”

Scott said his biggest impediment to regaining steady employment (he had previously worked in food processing and production leadership roles) is acquiring his own transportation.

Without transportation, holding a job becomes difficult. And without a job, he cannot help the family afford a used car — let alone permanent housing.

“Absolutely, that’s the concrete for my foundation,” Scott said. “If I have a car, I can get a job. Transportation is key one.”

For now, Scott and Jenny said they are focusing on their two sons and supporting them the best they can.

That sense of self-reliance among veterans is certainly a trait that Scott and Jenny share, and one which they’ve passed down to their sons.

“It’s been rough — it really has,” Taylor said. “I don’t have very many friends who know what’s going on.”

But there are a few he relies on and stays overnight with on occasion. One friend even helps move the family’s tents from campground to campground.

And Taylor said a few of his trusted teachers and mentors at school know the family’s living situation.

“Last year, when all of this started to happen, and everything started to fall apart, I failed one of my classes,” Taylor said.

But he has almost completed a “credit recovery” course this fall semester.

Hall County schools staff members are trained and educated about resources available to homeless students to assist schools in surveying who may be in need, according to officials.

There have been 126 students throughout the Hall County school district that have qualified for homeless-related services so far this academic year, according to officials. 

Keeping students in school who are identified as homeless, whether living in tents, in hotels or doubling up with friends or family, is priority No. 1.

The school system, for example, works to provide bus transportation for homeless students if they are residing in another city or district or off a standard route.

And all homeless students automatically qualify for free and reduced lunches, provided class supplies, and their families are provided resource guides.

Taylor has also signed up to assist his high school band by cleaning and repairing equipment, helping set up for concerts and games, and any other little thing to make sure the band is hitting its perfect pitch.

Giving back while living in such difficult circumstances is a sign of the service and self-reliance his military parents have instilled him.

Taylor said that when he graduates high school, he intends to begin working toward becoming a paramedic or other kind of first responder.

Scott and Jenny said they try to encourage his goals and aspirations, and hope to soon visit a local fire station with their son so he can begin to learn what life is like for those on the front lines of public safety.

Caleb, meanwhile, said he is considering joining the Army one day, just like his parents.

He credits a few amazing teachers with helping him over the last few months, and he’s learning how to play guitar and plans to join the band when he moves on to high school next year.

Caleb takes after his mother in this way. Jenny said she played alto and tenor saxophone for years.  

“Music is an amazing opportunity for me,” Caleb said. “I really pick up on stuff quickly.”

School has been the one stabilizing force for the entire family while they’ve been homeless.

“We’ve been in counseling and trying to keep our family together,” Jenny said, adding that keeping Taylor and Caleb in school has been the biggest priority. “They have to have something stable. They’ve got to have something they’re familiar with.”

Because the family desires to stay together, access to the few shelters available in the region has not been possible, they said.

Whether it’s age-restrictions for the boys, work requirements for the parents, or the fact that some shelters serve specific demographics, such as only women and children or those with a substance abuse problem, their options have been limited.

Geography plays a role, too. Most shelters and homeless services are centered in and around Gainesville, rather than South Hall where the students attend school and the family comes from.

And the family feels like they have to remain together for the sake of each individual.

“We’re just very, very close,” Jenny said. “We have to look at the positives.”

Taylor, as the oldest son, feels this compulsion, and its weight of burden, perhaps as much as any of the family members.  

“I worry about all three of these guys,” Taylor said. “I try to be a rock everyone can lean on.”

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The MaGaw family poses for a photo at Marina Park on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. The MaGaw family is homeless and has been sleeping at campgrounds since about January. - photo by Austin Steele
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