How did Gwinnett County become a hotbed for homelessness?

Gwinnett County's iconic water towers, which were torn down in 2010.

Gwinnett County's iconic water towers, which were torn down in 2010.

Tera Carter was a successful music industry executive managing tour and talent for a record company. She, her husband and her three teenage children shared a happy home in Snellville.

Then, piece by piece, everything fell apart.

Carter began struggling at work and, in November 2014, lost her job. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she spent 2 ½ months in the hospital. Medical bills mounted.

The family eked by until the last few months of 2015, when Carter’s husband picked up a lot of overtime at work. The extra money disqualified them from receiving the Medicaid that had helped cover so many expenses.

“We kind of lost everything,” Carter said recently.

Including their home.

The family’s story is indicative of the type of homelessness that Gwinnett, a suburban county of nearly 900,000, typically sees: the working poor down on their luck, the “situationally” homeless, the family out in the cold because of one (or two, or three) bad breaks.

And it’s a significant problem, too — a 2015 report from Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs suggests Gwinnett has the largest homeless population of any metro Atlanta community that’s not the city of Atlanta.

It’s a sobering statistic for a county with a reputation for affluence.

“The water towers said ‘Success Lives Here,’”Chuck Ferraro, the executive director of Family Promise, which helps homeless Gwinnett families, said recently. “But poverty lives here also.”

'Total denial’

There were 792 “homeless persons” in Gwinnett in 2015, according to the state’s most recent tally. That compared to 684 in DeKalb County; 473 in Fulton County (excluding the 4,300 or so in the city of Atlanta); 415 in Cobb County; and 244 in Clayton County.

Nancy Yancey — the CEO of Gwinnett’s Rainbow Village, which offers homeless families housing and extensive support programs in downtown Duluth — thinks the numbers for her county are probably too low, too. The state’s methodology, which essentially involves a head count on one cold night each year, is far from perfect, she says.

Census bureau figures from 2010 suggested nearly 13 percent of the county was below the poverty line, and almost 55 percent of Gwinnett County Public School students receive free or reduced lunches. As of mid-December, the school system had more than 1,100 homeless students.

Rainbow Village, Yancey said, received a total of 3,047 calls for assistance in 2015. They’d already eclipsed that number for 2016 before the start of December, one of the year’s busiest months.

It all happens in the middle of a community that is, in large part, oblivious to the problem.

“I believe the average citizen in Gwinnett,” Yancey said, “is in total denial.”

A self-compounding problem

The county’s reputation for affluence is still deserved in many ways. It's a community that's still, for the most part, stereotypically suburban: The sprawling middle-class subdivisions are still there, as is one of the country's best school districts. Business, in many places, is still booming.

But what the county lacks makes it extremely difficult to rebound when you’re dealt a bad hand.

Ferraro estimates that at least 75 percent of the families his organization serves are the so-called "working poor,” and a lack of widespread public transit can make it hard to keep steady work (or get to better-paying work, if it's across the county).

There's a dearth of low-income housing in Gwinnett, big pockets of which remain staunchly apartment-averse, too. Census data puts the median rent in Gwinnett County at more than $1,000.

There are only 345 “emergency and transitional beds” in Gwinnett, according to the state’s count.

So more often than not, struggling families are left to find refuge at extended stay motels — sometimes dangerous places that suck away a few hundred dollars at a time, making it nearly impossible to save for a deposit at an apartment or a down payment on a home.

That’s what happened to Tera Carter and her family.

After they lost their home, they bounced around extended stays for weeks. They spent one night in their car before landing at Family Promise.

‘We’re not equipped’

At a recent public hearing, a realtor named Penny Poole angrily addressed the Board of Commissioners.

She called the prevalence of poverty in Gwinnett "an atrocity." She urged the government to do more.

"Instead of this county taking responsibility and making sure that things are done," Poole said, "monies are given to private organizations to take the duties off the back of the county."

That, however, is mostly by design.

Each year, Gwinnett County receives grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2015, it received just over $7.1 million.

Chunks of the money are doled out to local nonprofits like Family Promise, Rainbow Village and the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, which use it to carry out their missions. Outside of that, the county plays little direct role in battle against homelessness.

Commissioner Jace Brooks says that's intentional.

"My philosophy is that government has a history of addressing homelessness very poorly, to put it bluntly,” he said in a recent interview with The AJC. “...But what we can do is we can bring resources to bear to those organizations in our community that do know how to address it and do address it well."

The Gwinnett Coalition plays a big role, helping connect organizations and resources with needy residents. It often acts as a de facto, catch-all administrator, a role that's necessary in large part because, unlike nearby Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, Gwinnett has no official local planning body to coordinate services for the homeless.

“We have not kept up with the changes,” Lejla Slowinski, director of the Lawrenceville Housing Authority, said during a recent symposium. “We do not have institutions right now that are able to serve the amount of individuals in poverty, and also the homeless families.”

‘Every month praying’

Tera Carter and her family now have their own home in Lawrenceville. They “graduated” from Family Promise in August and life is fairly stable, Carter says — but “it’s still just every month praying.”

Carter is still not able to work (doctor’s orders) and still doesn’t have Medicaid to help. Her husband works seven days a week between his “regular” job with Comcast and one driving for Uber.

Her kids are now 15, 16 and 18 years old and attending Discovery High School.

They’re no longer homeless, but they know how quickly things can change.

“We were able to see that homelessness doesn’t discriminate,” Carter said. “You could easily be in the same situation.”