MUST Ministries is in the final stages of raising the $12.5 million it needs to build a new, 130-bed homeless shelter at the corner of Cobb Parkway and Bells Ferry Road. To help pay for the project, MUST would sell its current 72-bed Elizabeth Inn Shelter, which is shown here. Credit: MUST Ministries

MUST Ministries makes second attempt to get homeless shelter approved

Two years after MUST Ministries was denied zoning needed to build a new homeless shelter near existing homes, the charity is asking the city of Marietta to reconsider.

The Cobb County-based charity has asked the city for permission to build a 130-bed homeless shelter along Cobb Parkway North at Bells Ferry Road to address what it describes as a “critical” need in the community. While the first application was opposed by nearby residents, no opposition has appeared yet for the second request.

MUST wants to build its new shelter on 6.33 acres currently zoned for light industrial and commercial use. City zoning laws require homeless shelters be located at least 750 feet from residential property, but homes already exist adjacent to the property. The Zoning Board of Appeals will discuss the project at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 at Marietta City Hall.

In 2017, when MUST Ministries first requested special permission to build a homeless shelter there, nearby residents joined to fight the request. The Zoning Board of Appeals ultimately rejected MUST’s plan, and MUST chose not to appeal to the City Council. Instead, the company subdivided the property into two separate tracts: one outside the 750-foot radius and one inside it.

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In its new application, MUST said in order to build the shelter outside the 750-foot requirement, the shelter would have to be designed as a three-story facility attached to an existing 30,000-square-foot building it wants to use as a community room, administration offices and employment services. That arrangement would be awkward, MUST officials say.

“The most effective location for the shelter would be to put it at the back of the property, according to MUST’s engineers, architects, contractors and operational experts who have studied the property for months and months,” MUST board member Don Hausfeld said in a statement. But keeping the shelter in the rear of the property means it will be close enough to existing homes that county zoning officials must vote again on whether to allow it.

Marietta City Councilman Andy Morris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has not heard of any new opposition to MUST’s plans, but they have not been publicized.

“It’s not really close to any residences,” he said. However, in 2017, the first time the rezoning was submitted to the city, an online petition to stop the homeless shelter was signed by about 200 nearby homeowners.

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MUST Ministries says the need for more space to shelter the homeless “has become critical,” as it turns away 200 to 300 people each month from its current 72-bed Elizabeth Inn shelter at 55 Elizabeth Church Road in Marietta. CEO Ike Reighard said about 74 percent of those turned away are women and children.

MUST Ministries has been serving the homeless at its Elizabeth Inn Shelter since 1989. There, the charity operates its Loaves and Fishes Community Kitchen, Workforce Development and Family and Children Center programs. In 2018, 33,209 people, including 22,538 children, received help from MUST Ministries, said Kaye Cagle, vice president of marketing and public relations.

MUST Ministries is in the midst of a campaign to raise $12.1 million for the new shelter. Foundation and corporate grants have already pushed funding for the project to the $10.8 million mark, Reighard said.

The new shelter will have space for a family room, which could be outfitted with beds for younger and older children and adults.

“We want to build a shelter that reflects some of that demographic shift,” he said.

To help pay for the construction, MUST plans to sell the Elizabeth Inn Shelter. MUST would also sell its main building at 1407 Cobb Parkway North, which is home to its administrative offices, Marietta Client Services and the MUST Marketplace thrift store. The new Bells Ferry Road campus will bring all of those services to one location. It would be located next to MUST’s new Donation Center that opened in November 2017. Cagle said a groundbreaking for the project could happen in early 2020 and construction could take 18 to 24 months.

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Reighard said the shelter is part of its answer to address poverty and homelessness in Cobb County. According to numbers provided by MUST Ministries, 403 people in Cobb were identified as homeless in 2018. Reighard stressed that number doesn’t include the roughly 2,400 students designated as homeless by the Cobb County and Marietta City school systems.

Reighard said the majority of people who come to the organization for help are facing emergency situations for the first time and “don’t have a concept of how to work through the system.”

Cagle added people often move to the suburbs with the notion that their lives will be easier. However, she also said many homes in the suburbs are too pricey for low-income residents.

“The suburbs were designed like bedroom communities to have people live here and go into the city to work,” she said. “Those things have changed over the years, but the structure of housing have not changed.”

Reighard said the shelter will serve as a place where people can temporarily land on their feet while they work through unexpected life events that impact their finances.

“We try to be that safety net under that high wire,” Reighard said. “We are not trying to just be a hammock.”

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