How metro Atlanta housing groups adapted to COVID-19

Promise Haven, a shelter for families operated by Family Promise of Gwinnett County, is set to open on Nov. 5. Family Promise CEO Carol Love said the home’s renovation began in earnest in May 2021, and the first two families will move in after its opening Friday.
William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Promise Haven, a shelter for families operated by Family Promise of Gwinnett County, is set to open on Nov. 5. Family Promise CEO Carol Love said the home’s renovation began in earnest in May 2021, and the first two families will move in after its opening Friday. William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

COVID-19 forced metro Atlanta shelters and housing nonprofits to adapt and changed how they serve those who are experiencing homelessness.

From a new facility in Gwinnett County that will open Friday to organizations adjusting eligibility requirements and volunteer expectations, here is how housing groups continue to adapt and pivot during the pandemic.

Accelerating plans

Family Promise of Gwinnett County’s model of partnering with nearby churches to provide shelter week-to-week fell apart when churches closed due to COVID-19.

Carol Love, its executive director, scrambled to house a family of seven in April 2020. Two members of Family Promise’s board offered a potential solution: a time-worn home owned by neighboring St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in Lawrenceville.

“So I walk in the back door, and immediately I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we could run our whole program from here,’” Love said.

Fast forward 18 months – five months after receiving the go-ahead from Gwinnett’s planning division – and Promise Haven is set to open Friday. Donated time, money and resources from an abundance of community partners made the wholesale renovation a reality. What would have been a more than $400,000 renovation cost around $80,000 sourced from churches and individual donors, Love said.

Love said Family Promise would have inevitably used the space, which can house 12 people. But the pandemic sped up the process.

Easing entry, exit

Our House, which runs a shelter for parents with infants in Old Fourth Ward, raised its maximum child age requirement from six to 12 months earlier this year.

Director of Housing and Family Services Raven Whavers said vacancies at the shelter rose when the City of Atlanta offered hotel vouchers via the American Rescue Plan in early 2021. The expanded requirement helped Our House fill open rooms, and the change will stay, Whavers said.

Before 2020, Roswell’s The Drake House provided rent-free apartments to single mothers for up to six months until families transitioned to an affordable place.

Now, Executive Director Nesha Mason said families can remain in the program for up to two years, moving from crisis housing to an on-site transitional apartment to build rental history. With the extended timeframe, Mason said she hopes mothers can safely find their financial footing before leaving the program.

“People are always saying there’s so many jobs out there,” Mason said. “But being the sole provider for your children and their sole source of emotional support – that danger starts to look a bit different.”

Caption
A small playset sits in the backyard of Promise Haven, a shelter for families in Lawrenceville renovated by Family Promise of Gwinnett County. Family Promise CEO Carol Love said two families will move in after the home opens on Nov. 5. William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A small playset sits in the backyard of Promise Haven, a shelter for families in Lawrenceville renovated by Family Promise of Gwinnett County. Family Promise CEO Carol Love said two families will move in after the home opens on Nov. 5. William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
A small playset sits in the backyard of Promise Haven, a shelter for families in Lawrenceville renovated by Family Promise of Gwinnett County. Family Promise CEO Carol Love said two families will move in after the home opens on Nov. 5. William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: William Newlin/For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

New limitations

The Shepherd’s Inn, a men’s emergency shelter in downtown Atlanta, remains below 50% capacity, said Paul Mitchell, community living assistant for the Atlanta Mission facility.

It requires masks, daily health screenings and weekly COVID-19 PCR tests. Although safety measures changed interaction with clients, Mitchell said efforts to vaccinate residents have helped reduce concerns.

Safety concerns were lower for The Center for Family Resources in Marietta due to its independent living model. But CEO Melanie Kagan said its office still shut down, and clients could seek assistance by appointment only.

While the Georgia Department of Community Affairs relaxed in-person signature requirements to apply for services, Kagan said wait times for entering a home increased from 55 days on average in 2019 to 72 days in 2020.

Our House and The Drake House both offer counseling services with community partners and on-site education, such as financial literacy classes. Some programs ended, and some moved online. Limited group sessions returned at Our House in January 2021, and The Drake House relies on temperature checks and social distancing to bring back groups.

Early childhood education classes for kids under 5 became virtual at Our House as families hunkered down in their individual rooms. In addition, the group limited dining hall and community room access to two or three families at a time.

Fewer volunteers

The Shepherd’s Inn has not yet welcomed volunteers back to its shelter. Our House’s older staff, who’ve worked with the group for more than a decade in some cases, slowly returned starting in summer 2020. The Drake House saw its number of volunteers decline from around 400 in 2019 to fewer than 100 in 2020.

Meanwhile, there was more to do. Whavers said maintenance employees cleaned the shelter every hour, wiping surfaces and using disinfectant sprays. Frontline staff needed unlimited masks and plastic screens on desks.

Across the metro area, need remains. Kagan said once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s final moratorium on evictions ended Oct. 3, more families sought assistance. But finding temporary housing in Cobb County apartments remains a challenge.

The development added to feelings of burnout among Kagan’s staff, whom she described as experiencing the “the pandemic twice,” worrying about both their families and their clients.

All four groups have an open call for volunteers to return either in-person or virtually. Each group has sections on its website where people can find volunteer opportunities.


RESOURCES

If you need assistance or want to volunteer, here is contact information for the four groups.

Family Promise of Gwinnett County. 678-376-8950, familypromisegwinnett.org

Our House. 404-522-6056 (Atlanta), 404-378-0938 (Decatur), ourhousega.org

The Center for Family Resources. 770-428-2601, thecfr.org

The Drake House. 770-587-4712, thedrakehouse.org


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