If you think you know what homelessness looks likes, you might be wrong. Increasingly, it looks like families with children. More than one-third of Georgia’s homeless population is families — the percentages are even higher in Fulton and DeKalb counties. To get to know a little about what homelessness feels like, Nicholas House is putting on a fundraiser on Oct. 13 called “Off the Street, On Their Feet: Sleep Out to Support Homeless Families.” People who participate will eat dinner with families at the nonprofit’s Grant Park shelter, then claim a piece of cardboard and sleep outside in the back. “It will happen come rain or shine,” says Nicholas House executive director Dennis Bowman, “because that’s what it’s like when you are homeless.” For more on the fundraiser and Nicholas House, visit https://nicholashouse.org/.
Q: Why are so many families homeless?
A: It is often an economic issue. We see people living on the edge and then something happens that could happen to any of us. For example, we have parents who lose their transportation and can’t get to their job. Or their children are ill and they have to stay home from work. Or the main wage-earner leaves the household. Or someone loses a job.
Q: How does Nicholas House help?
A: Our mission is to help homeless families become self-sufficient. One of the unique things about Nicholas House is that we accept any type of family, even in our group shelter. We have single moms but also single dads. We have large families with teenage boys. Often, families in homeless services may be separated or the older boys are sent to youth shelters. There is a federal law that says that shouldn’t be the case but it is.
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Q: How do you serve families?
A: Since not all homeless families are the same, we have multiple programs. We have one for people who have enough income but don’t have enough to put down or need an advocate because of past evictions or circumstances. For people who don’t have quite enough income, we are able to get them into an apartment. They pay 30 percent of their income in rent and we make up the difference and work with them to reach their earning capacity. Our Boulevard shelter across from the zoo is for people who have been living on the streets or in their cars. The purpose is to help stabilize families and get a plan of action together. We have a program for people with no income but added barriers such as disabilities.
Q: What is the impact of homelessness on children?
A: Some 70 percent of the people we serve are children. Homeless children are four times more likely to be left behind in school. They have behavioral issues and are likely to be not performing at grade level. Fortunately, we have found that children rebound very quickly once they have a stable living environment. With our afterschool and summer camp programs, we focus on helping children come back academically. We emphasize to them that it doesn’t matter where you are beginning but where you are heading.
Q: What are you trying to achieve with your fundraiser?
A: The sleep out is a way to raise funds and experience what it’s like to be homeless. People who are participating have pledged to raise $2,500 for our programs.
Q: Is homelessness something we will always have to live with?
A: We will always be homelessness but we have the best opportunity right now to make the most significant impact. The city of Atlanta has created a plan to address homelessness and DeKalb and Fulton counties are doing the same. All of the agencies are working together in a more coordinated way.
Q: You sound truly optimistic.
A: Every day I see families whose lives are being changed because they are moving into apartments. The families themselves are hopeful because they can feel that people are there to help and support them.