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Number of homeless in Georgia declines, but challenges remain
5,797 people were homeless across 152 of 159 counties in state
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The belongings of a homeless person decorate a beam at the homeless camp under the Queen City bridge while tents are set up at the base of the bridge on Wednesday. Shifting from place to place and job to job, the homeless are hard to track and the state’s recent survey amounts to only an estimate. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Number of homeless in 152 of 159 Georgia counties

January 2015: 5,797

January 2013: 7,651

January 2011: 11,168

While the population of individuals living on the street continues to decline in most counties across Georgia, the proportion of homeless veterans and “chronically” homeless people is climbing, according to initial survey results released this week by the Department of Community Affairs.

The survey helps determine federal funding levels for local assistance programs, but there is skepticism among Gainesville’s homeless about whether they will benefit from the results.

At least 5,797 people were homeless across 152 of 159 counties in the state, including Hall, in late January when the survey was conducted. That’s down from 7,651 counted during the same timeframe in 2013 and 11,168 in 2011.

Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Clarke, Muscogee, Richmond and Chatham counties, all in more urban areas, conduct their own counts and were not included in that survey.

There were a total of at least 16,947 homeless individuals for all Georgia counties in January 2013.

There were 241 homeless individuals in Hall County in 2009, either living on the streets or in shelters. That number fell to 201 in 2011, and then precipitously declined to just 57 two years ago, with only 14 individuals counted as unsheltered.

Survey results and totals for each county this year have not been published.

The survey, conducted every two years, collected information from homeless and transient individuals, including housing status, income levels and other factors that affect living conditions.

While the overall estimated homeless population in January across 152 counties was nearly half that tallied four years earlier, thanks in part to a federal rapid rehousing program, veterans account for 10 percent of homeless individuals within the survey area, up from 7 percent in 2013.

And the number of chronically homeless individuals has risen to 16 percent of the total this year from 13 percent in 2013.

According to the survey, at least 2,279 homeless individuals were living in emergency or transitional housing in January, while 3,518 were “unsheltered.” Fifty-seven percent were male, 25 percent were children and African-Americans accounted for half of all homeless individuals.

Those figures correspond with anecdotal evidence of the homeless population in and around Gainesville.

For example, black men between the ages of 35 and 60 are the most frequent residents of a homeless camp located under the Queen City bridge.

Rodricus Cobb, 36, has been in and out of housing for several years, working odd jobs when he can find them and living under the bridge when times get tough.

Cobb, like many others, has never received any specific housing assistance to end this cycle, he said.

While local organizations, such as Good News at Noon, provide shelter beds for the homeless, there isn’t enough availability to meet local needs, according to many homeless.

Kenneth, 51, said getting a bed in a shelter “depends on who you are” and who you know.

Some of the homeless at the camp fluctuate between stability and instability because of substance abuse habits. Mental health issues, growing up in poverty and lack of higher education are also common contributing factors.

Kenneth has worked for local poultry plants, near where several homeless camps have sprung up, but a few stints in jail for drug-related crimes have kept him from holding down a job with any consistency in recent years.

“I just kind of got comfortable (here),” he said, before adding that he was trying to stay sober and get back to work. “My mind is clear now.”

Shifting from place to place and job to job, the homeless are hard to track and the survey amounts to only an estimate, an attempt to arrive near an accurate number.

But there are certainly more than reported. The survey is only a snapshot of a moment in time.

For example, an estimated 53,553 people experienced homelessness at some point in Georgia in 2013, though just shy of 17,000 were counted as living on the streets when the survey was conducted that year.

Demetric Newberry, who is in his late 30s, has lived under the Queen City bridge for about the last year and a half, he said. It’s been so long that he counts not the days, but the seasons.

“It wasn’t cold yet,” Newberry said about the time period when he lost connection to his family and children as a result, in part, of his alcoholism.

He said he misses and loves his family with his “whole heart.”

Hines, one of the older men who live under the bridge, said he used to receive food stamps, but the process to renew – including verifying income – became too cumbersome to manage while being homeless.

“I just gave up,” he said.

It’s an attitude shared by some of the city’s homeless: Receiving help is often viewed as a burden.

Hines said he and others at the camp declined to participate in the homeless survey because they don’t believe it will do any good.

“They’re not going to do nothing for us,” he said. “Period.”

According to Don Watt, director of the state Office of Homeless and Special Needs Housing, Georgia receives millions of dollars annually through the emergency solutions grants program, an effort to provide permanent and transitional housing for those in need.

Carl, a man in his 50s who has lived in homeless camps in Gainesville off and on for 10 years, said the biggest needs, in addition to housing, are job training and substance abuse recovery programs.

Carl said he understands there are no easy fixes for chronic homelessness.

“It’s going to take some time,” he added. “It’s going to cost money.”

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