Dennishia Davis (left), who came for assistance after being evicted, is interviewed by Nicole Cornish in the intake area of the Norcross Cooperative Ministry on July 13, 2018. Gwinnett County has as big of a homeless problem as any community in metro Atlanta and has allocated $500,000 in this year’s budget to address the issue. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Can Gwinnett create a model for addressing suburban homelessness?

It’s a Friday morning in July. Dennishia Davis and her three kids — 10, 6, 4 — spent the previous night in the breezeway outside of their now-former home at the Bradford Gwinnett apartments.

Davis, 25, single and out of work, is struggling to keep it together.

“It was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever had to do,” she says, sitting at a table at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry, tears in her eyes.

Davis has come here for help and, like most of the other folks filling up the co-op’s 50-seat waiting room, she’ll get it: a room at a local extended stay motel for at least the night, help with food and more. She’s now a statistic.

On this day, she’s one of the hundreds of people considered homeless in Gwinnett County, a suburb with both a well-earned reputation for affluence and an often understated poverty problem. Unbeknownst to most, Gwinnett has one of the largest homeless populations in the metro area and has for years. A 2015 report from the state gave it the highest count outside the city of Atlanta.

But the county has recently developed a new interest in addressing the issue — taking steps it never has before.

It included $500,000 in its 2018 budget specifically to address homelessness. Some who work in social services believe that marks the first time the county has ever allocated a significant sum of money directly from its general fund to the cause. Gwinnett and the United Way also have joined forces to create a new position: a sort of county homelessness czar.

Matt Elder will be the czar, the man tasked with evaluating the current situation and finding a better way to address it. If his efforts prove successful, Gwinnett could chart a course for other suburbs across Atlanta.

“This isn’t something we’re gonna go out and just halfway deal with,” Elder said earlier this month, a few days after starting in his new position. “… We’re going to take a big swing at this and make the largest impact we can.”

Volunteers John Lounsbury (from left), Ed Osowski and Lloyd Foster fill food orders at Norcross Cooperative Ministry, one of the busiest co-ops in Gwinnett County, on July 13, 2018. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘Our situation is very difficult’

According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ 2017 Report on Homelessness — which, per standard operating procedure, is based on a single count on a single night in January — Gwinnett County is home to 263 “homeless persons” and 107 “imminently homeless” people.

So-called point-in-time counts are far from perfect, experts say. The state count doesn’t include the city of Atlanta or Cobb and DeKalb counties, which either perform their own or rely on estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates. And the census skews toward counting primarily those homeless people living on the streets and in emergency shelters.

That means they often don’t paint a full picture because they exclude families that are living in cars or “couch surfing,” as well as people who are staying in extended stay motels while they are still trying to figure out what to do next.

“I think the [state] number is significantly lower than the actual number of people that are homeless in Gwinnett County,” said Elder, who most recently worked at Lawrenceville-based Family Promise, which operates a small emergency shelter. “… Our situation in Gwinnett is very difficult, and it’s hard to count.”

A truer illustration of the county’s issues may be provided by Gwinnett County Public Schools, which regularly tracks the number of homeless students among its pupils.

Its tally is based on a federal law that defines homeless individuals as those “who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes children who are “sharing the housing of other persons” or are living in “motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools’ most recent count designated 1,430 students as homeless.

At more than one-third of Gwinnett’s 139 schools, at least 70 percent of the student body qualifies to receive free or reduced-price lunches. At Baldwin Elementary School, located just up the street from the Norcross Co-op, more than 92 percent of students qualify.

Dennishia Davis talks about her situation and why she came to the co-op for help. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘A good start’

Davis and her children moved to Gwinnett about two years ago from Savannah. A hair dresser by trade, she thought it was time to branch out to the bigger, presumably better Atlanta market.

Her current situation, she said, developed quickly. She was working at the Dollar General while trying to gain a foothold in the hair business when, earlier this year, her hours got cut dramatically, from a full 40 hours a week to more like 10.

There was also some confusion over how much Davis needed to pay toward her partially subsidized rent. The short version of what followed is this: In mid-May, she got a surprise eviction notice saying she owed $1,500.

She didn’t have $1,500 then and still doesn’t.

“I just gotta go find something,” she said of her current job search. She spent the money she’d saved up to rent a storage unit.

Davis’ story is a familiar one. An unanticipated occurrence — like reduced hours at work, a job loss or a single unexpected expense — leads to homelessness.

And while Gwinnett has several community- and faith-based organizations to help, Family Promise’s 11-bed emergency shelter for women and children is the only one in Gwinnett. For homeless men, there’s not even that small offering.

“Having a shelter would be a good start,” said Shirley Cabe, the longtime executive director of the Norcross Co-op. “A real, honest-to-gosh shelter where families can stay for a period of time on an emergency basis.”

Gwinnett has very little in the way of affordable housing. And Ellen Gerstein, the director of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, said there’s a two-year-long waiting list for the Section 8 vouchers that help lower rents for low-income residents.

“I don’t think they build affordable housing anymore,” Gerstein said, only partly in jest.

Tom Fishburne. a volunteer and board member, helps a client at Norcross Cooperative Ministry, one of the busiest co-ops in Gwinnett County, on July 13, 2018. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘High expectations’

Denise Townsend, the United Way’s Regional Director for DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett, said a task like figuring out homelessness in Gwinnett — and the suburbs as a whole — needs “someone who wakes up every day and that’s their focus.”

That someone is now Matt Elder.

Elder’s title in his new role — which he began at the start of July — is director of HomeFirst Gwinnett Initiative at United Way of Greater Atlanta. Gwinnett is the first suburban county to formally enroll in the HomeFirst program, which had a coming out party last year when the city of Atlanta and United Way announced $50 million for the initiative.

HomeFirst is aimed at ending chronic homelessness by better connecting services.

Elder worked for four years in Gwinnett County’s Community Development office. He then took the reins of Family Promise for just more than a year.

His new gig involves “looking at things in a different way than we’ve looked at them before,” he said. He plans to evaluate the full scope of the current situation, its causes, barriers to providing assistance, current services available to homeless people, how to better coordinate those services and how to fill existing gaps.

“We’re going to talk to anybody and everybody that has a stake in this issue, and has a thought, and has an idea,” Elder said.

Essentially, Elder is tasked with better defining and better addressing suburban homelessness. No small task.

“I just think he’s perfect,” Gerstein said. “I have high expectations for him.”

The county and Duluth-based insurance and financial services company Primerica are each paying half of Elder’s first-year salary. Gwinnett also recently allocated $50,000 to pay a consulting firm to “assist the County in meetings its homeless and affordable housing related goals.”

And about $400,000 set aside in this year’s budget to address homelessness is still “fluid,” a county spokeswoman said.

But the plan is for it to help folks like Davis, the struggling single mother, in one way or another.

During her visit to the Norcross Co-op, Davis said she’d been given a bit of peace of mind — at least one night in a motel room, where she could “figure out how to get myself together.” She said folks don’t realize how quickly situations can deteriorate, how one bad thing can lead to another.

She still plans to start cosmetology school at Gwinnett Tech next month. But it’s going to be a struggle.

“It’s hard,” Davis said. “Especially not having it all figured out. And I feel like I’m supposed to because I have my kids looking at me. I feel like I’m supposed to have it together for them.”

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