Last week, hundreds of volunteers, on a cold, rainy night, canvassed the streets of DeKalb and Fulton counties and the city of Atlanta in an effort to count the homeless population of the area.
The homeless census, which is conducted every two years, is sponsored by Metro Atlanta Tri-Jurisdictional Collaborative on Homelessness (Tri-J), a partnership of government representatives and service providers in Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County.
In DeKalb, 50 to 75 volunteers, along with police escorts, covered the county, which had been divided up into census block grant groups. In some cases, the volunteers were joined by paid workers who had once been homeless. These workers helped the teams recognize homeless persons who might not be so easily noticed by an inexperienced volunteer, said Chris Morris, the county’s community development director.
In addition to the street count, officials have conducted surveys of area hospitals, jails, shelters and transitional housing to complete the count.
The census gives officials a snapshot of local homelessness and is used by the federal government to allocate funding for programs that address the homeless problem, said DeKalb County commissioner Lee May.
May said he has seen an increase over the years in the number of visible homeless—the ones seen asking for money at intersections or sleeping under overpasses.
“It used to be an Atlanta problem. It’s grown to be a metro Atlanta problem,” May said.
The lagging economy has exacerbated the problems of people already on the fringe of homelessness, May said.
When the results of the census are released in February or March, officials expect an increase in the number of homeless, said Melvia Richards, the housing manager of the county’s community development department.
Local service providers receiving federal funding for homeless programs are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to conduct the census.
The grants will be used to provide permanent and transitional housing to homeless persons as well as job training, health care, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and child care.
On Jan. 21, Congressman Hank Johnson announced that HUD was giving more than $2.2 million in grants to programs in Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District.
Groups receiving grant funds include Action Ministries, Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Rainbow Village Inc., Our House Inc., Initiative for Affordable Housing, Jerusalem House, Progressive Redevelopment, Zion Keepers and Salvation Army.
“The recession has taken a huge toll,” Johnson said in a press release. “As our economy recovers, we must ensure everyone – no matter their circumstances – benefits from our efforts. These programs help people reach their personal goals and establish independence.”
Tyese Lawyer, executive director of Our House Inc. in Decatur, which provides child care for families that are homeless or in transitional housing, said the grant award will go a long way. Our House will get $47,000 from the HUD grant.
“Children are often forgotten in the homelessness crisis,” Lawyer said. “These funds allow us to provide a loving, safe early learning environment, where parents can confidently leave their child while Our House helps parents seek employment and permanent housing.”
Our House, a non-profit organization established in 1987, provides early childcare for 79 children. With an operating budget of $1.3 million, the organization has 21 fulltime employees and two part-time.
Azalia Hobson, 21, knows the benefits of the HUD money and the people at Our House.
“I’ve never met so many helpful people in one building,” Hobson said. “They’ve been helping me for the past two years.”
In addition to receiving childcare for her son, Hobson was able to get a job working as a substitute teacher at Our House after completing child development training.
Hobson said her family advocate has been helping sort through all the requirements of supporting herself and her son, who spent some time in the custody of the Department of Family and Child Services.
Her advice to others who are homeless or in transitional housing?
“Even though you may feel like things won’t get better, everything will get better,” Hobson said. “It’s not as hard as you think it might be.”