Monday, November 3, 2008

Atlanta Homeless Shelters Overloaded

From the AJC:

It was dinnertime inside the Gateway Homeless Services Center and the lobby was crowded with women and children dining on baked fish, rice and beans.

There were 166 people on the list to stay there on this cold October evening in downtown Atlanta.

...In recent months, Gateway has had at least 200 women and children seeking shelter. Center employees put cots on the lobby floor and ask the women and children to make do.

Across metro Atlanta, homeless advocates say they’ve seen an uptick in the number of women and children seeking shelter as the economy has faltered. Although they have no statistics to back up their conclusions, they point to the Gateway lobby as
evidence. Most area counties will conduct a census of their homeless in January.

The Rev. James Milner said the number of people seeking help seems “infinite.” Milner runs Community Concerns Inc., an organization that has an apartment complex in DeKalb County where homeless women get job training, clothes for work and other services.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad, particularly with women and children,” he said. “We’re seeing too many grandmothers [without a home].”

Homeless advocates say they’re trying to help, but their coffers are low, and they’re getting little additional financial help.

Ellen Gerstein, executive director of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, said a staffer was in tears in her office one day last week, frustrated by the inability to help the rising number of women and children in need of shelter, food and health care.

Stories like these are common for us. Children under 9 are the fastest growing homeless population in our city, and many of these children are homeless with their mothers because of violence faced at home. Though we don't call our safehouse a homeless shelter in the traditional sense, women and children stay there because they have no other options for housing at the time. For many families, it is literally a choice between violence at home or no home at all.

For others, homelessness comes after a period of trying to make it on their own with limited resources and supports.

In an interview, [Mayor Franklin] said single women with children typically suffer first when the economy falters.

“They feel it first,” she said. “So we’ve seen in this increase of women and children, many of the women … work for low wages until a child gets sick or they get sick and they lose their job. They don’t have the flexibility of sick time. They don’t have the flexibility of vacation time to support their families.”

Franklin said she and mayors from cities such as Boston and Denver who have worked on homelessness issues believed things were getting better. That was until early 2008, when the mayor noticed an economic downturn in the city.

“All of us thought we understood the problem and thought we were making progress and all of a sudden we see this increase [of homeless women and children],” Franklin said. “We’ve seen the cracks in the economy. Now, it’s like an avalanche, and children often suffer the worst.”

Homelessness due to family violence is also a problem in rural areas in Georgia and in other states, but many of these families migrate to Atlanta because they hope to find more opportunities here.

“They hear it’s the home of Martin Luther King, and it’s the city too busy to hate,” Milner said. “They think there’s an advocacy movement that will take care of them.”

Teresa Miles is one of those newcomers. Miles, 47, moved here from a Baltimore suburb three months ago, hoping to keep her two teenage sons away from increasing gang violence there. Unable to find housekeeping work and without a support network in Atlanta, Miles and her children sleep in the Gateway lobby.

DeKalb County resident Tasha Bell, 36, a mother of two girls, moved into a transitional housing facility near Doraville in May after getting evicted a month earlier. She was laid off from her job a year ago and couldn’t find another job where the hours allowed Bell to pick up her daughter, who’s about to turn 3, from day care.

Bell said what troubles her most about her current situation is not being able to buy things for her 14-year-old daughter, who’s in her first year of high school.

“That makes me feel very sad, like I’ve failed,” she said.

Women and children are one-third of Georgia’s homeless population, according to the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness. Children under 9 are the fastest-growing group of homeless, they say.

In recent years, Atlanta has often ranked among the meanest cities to the homeless, partly due to its law aimed at curbing panhandling.

At the time of this post, there are 2 beds (at two separate shelters, meaning no room for women to bring children) open in domestic violence shelters in the five-county metro area.

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