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Local leaders work to count homeless, connect them with resources
Survey helps determine federal, state funding for aid programs
Food heats over a smoldering fire Tuesday afternoon at a homeless camp in Gainesville near Black Drive. This week a homeless count is taking place to get a more accurate look at the number of homeless in the area.

After waiting in line for a few minutes, Cynthia takes her seat at a table inside the mess hall of The Way, a local mission, on Monday morning. She’s here to participate in a tally of the homeless population in Gainesville and Hall County.

The questions get personal quickly, but with ease Cynthia dishes on her life — where she lives, her arrest history, how she makes money, where she goes to eat, her family history and current medical conditions.

Cynthia has been homeless for the better part of the last five years, though she currently resides in a trailer she said is falling apart and can’t really afford anyhow.

“If I can’t get any help I can’t do it no more,” she said. “It’s not easy. I’m ready to cave.”

More than 50 homeless or temporarily sheltered men and women participated in the count, which is taking place at ministries, nonprofits and wooded encampments across the county all week, that first morning at The Way.

Located in Gainesville’s industrial area, where mills belch smoke and trains quake through railroad interchanges, this mission and day center has become a place of refuge for those living in the streets.

Jerry Deyton, pastor and founder at The Way, said the process went smoothly and he anticipates capturing another two dozen or so before the week is out.

For two women, the survey provided them an opportunity to connect with My Sister’s Place, a local shelter for homeless women.

The number who come through here in a given week shines a light on the true total of homeless in Hall, which has been undercounted in recent years, according to local advocates and nonprofit leaders.

Conducted every two years, information collected in the survey of homeless and transient individuals, including housing status, income levels and other factors that affect living conditions, helps determine federal and state funding levels for local assistance programs.

Advocates are hoping an extended outreach effort this year will help them capture a closer total of the homeless population than in recent counts.

For example, there were 241 homeless individuals in Hall County in 2009, either living on the streets or in shelters. Advocates said that number hasn’t changed much since, if at all.

But the survey recorded just 201 homeless in 2011, and then declined to just 57 two years ago, with only 14 individuals counted as unsheltered.

And in 2015, just 34 unsheltered and precariously housed individuals were counted.

Even so, Hall was one of just 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015, according to survey results for all counties.

And the 2015 survey found that while the population of individuals living on the streets continues to decline in most counties across Georgia, the proportion of homeless veterans and “chronically” homeless people is climbing.

The effort to more thoroughly survey the local homeless population this year began with meetings in December among local nonprofits and ministries as they outlined plans to conduct the count with a few enticements.

After participating on the survey, for example, each individual was given a bag of deodorant and other toiletries, granola, crackers and other snacks, and gift cards to local restaurants or pharmacies.

When an encampment beneath the Queen City Bridge in Gainesville was closed last fall, several homeless living there scattered to more isolated camps, such as a patch of woods out beyond Black and Cooley drive.

That’s where Jerome and his brother Long John were preparing to pack up their tents and clothes on Tuesday. They said law enforcement had given them just a few days to vacate this camp.

One participated in the survey hoping it might pay off for him in the long run. The other declined.

The two looked around and pointed, wondering where to go next.