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Struggling for shelter
Homeless, their helpers face tougher obstacles

Editor's note: Results of a survey released Tuesday revealed there are more than 910 people living without sufficient housing in Gwinnett County. Service organizations and representatives of the Pathways Community Network, the group that assisted in gathering information for the homeless count believe the real number of homeless or "precariously housed," is far higher.

For Gwinnett's homeless and those needing other assistance, there are places to turn. This is the story of two people, identified by first name only, who sought help, as well as the thoughts of those who offer a helping hand on how there's more to be done.

NORCROSS - For Loretta, walking into the Norcross Cooperative Ministry for a place to stay was something she never dreamt of doing.

"I've always taken care of myself, never been dependent," said Loretta, 32. "I hate taking advantage of people."

Loretta watches her daughters play with dolls in her Knight's Inn motel room. One is 9, the other is 6 - the older one has asthma and the younger has mild attention disorder. It's a breezy summer night, and they are laughing, having a good time.

Yet all their mother - a graduate of Georgia State University in finance - can think about is where they'll sleep tomorrow and how she's going to afford their prescription medicines next week.

Loretta is one face of hundreds homeless in Gwinnett, a county without a homeless shelter. Since the mortgage crisis, increasing numbers of educated, formerly lower middle-class to middle-class people are becoming homeless, according to Gwinnett charity organizations.

"We're getting first-time families who want to automatically explain that they used to give to you, that this is something they haven't done before," said Lafia Watson, Salvation Army media relations officer. "It's people facing foreclosure or eviction who have to make the choice between paying mortgage and buying groceries."

Last December, Loretta separated from her husband and moved out, taking the kids with her. She tried keeping up with bills, but it was too much - the car got taken away in February. But her nightmare wasn't over.

For two years, she'd happily worked as a financial counselor at Grady Memorial Hospital. In late spring, she began feeling uncomfortable because her supervisor was acting extremely flirty, so she filed for sexual harassment. "I don't take stuff like that, and in those cases, you're always supposed to be right," Loretta said.

She was fired a month later. To this day, she doesn't know why.

Today, Loretta is homeless, with two daughters, no child support and one dollar left in her children's college savings account. As she tells her story, tears start streaming down her face. Her 6-year-old puts her arms around her. "Mama, why are you crying?" she asks.

"I'm just trying to shelter them, keep things as normal as possible," Loretta said, struggling to keep her voice even. "It's been rough, trying to figure out how to answer them when they ask, 'Why do we have to move again? Why's all the stuff in storage?'"

Though she's interviewed at other hospitals, all are hesitant to hire her. Their reason? A minor drug and petty theft charge from her high school days. Even Family Promise, a Gwinnett agency to help the homeless, turned her away.

"You know I wanted to go back to school and take law. I wanted to have my own law practice," she said. "Now I have nothing."

Apart from her kids' ailments, Loretta herself suffers from migraines and seizures due to a serious car accident years ago. "I'm supposed to take medicine, but it's enough trying to care for them," she said.

'You can be homeless just like that'

For L.A., a 56-year-old, Greek man suffering from chronic pancreatitis, expensive medications are nothing new.

"People don't realize it's so easy to become homeless now," he said. "I am not on crack or an alcoholic. I'm medically, economically homeless because I'm disabled. It's just the way the system is, you can be homeless just like that."

L.A. used to own a recording studio in California, making $160 an hour. A communications degree holder, he even ran a Universal Rescue Mission homeless shelter for nine years. "I used to wear suits," he said, dressed in shabby khaki shorts and a green shirt. But once he had "made it up the success hill," engaged to a Greek girl and signing top artists, he was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis. "I couldn't keep a job, with medical payments and no family to help," he said.

The engagement broke off. His savings dwindled to zero. As a last hope, he moved to Atlanta with a "Mercedes and a $500 dog" to live with his nephew, but after a year, the nephew threw him to the curb and moved to Ohio.

"If I don't get my prescription pills, my body goes into shock," said L.A., who has since made his living panhandling in downtown Atlanta. Multiple times, L.A. has woken up in a hospital after losing consciousness on the street or in a QuikTrip. With nothing to hold on to - even his beloved dog Buster died a year ago - L.A. clings to his faith. "God hasn't let me down from anything," L.A. said.

They're not teeming the streets rattling cans. Nor are they all drug addicts, content living off charity. Homelessness is invisible in Gwinnett, consisting of families moving among motels, individuals living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of them, like Loretta and L.A., are fighting to get out, yet it's so hard to find help. Families need to meet eligibility standards for most programs, and individuals are rarely accepted. Without an address and a phone number, it's nearly impossible to find a job.

"I had a Gwinnett cop stop me and tell me there are no homeless in the area," L.A. said. "The hell it doesn't happen here!"

New faces, fewer helping hands

In the past six months, 4,155 evictions occurred in Gwinnett - a 10.9 percent increase since last year, according to Maj. David Parr, overseer of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department's civil division. In June alone, 1,093 homes in Gwinnett began the foreclosure process.

To charity organizations, all the numbers equal one thing: more people needing help and less people willing to give it.

"Here we are, standing on the edge, needing to do more, but all agencies are struggling," said Bobby Westmoreland, captain of Salvation Army Gwinnett. "It's been challenging, having to cut costs, be as efficient as possible and yet continue to help more people."

There's been a 17 percent increase in first-time people seeking help in Gwinnett, said Watson of the Salvation Army - the largest rise of the metro Atlanta counties. In addition to the increasing middle-class homeless, a new demographic has appeared in Gwinnett: men, like L.A. "Some of it's the trickle-down effects of a rough drought," Watson said. "It got the landscapers and anyone who relies on real estate."

Shirley Cabe, director of Norcross Cooperative Ministries, sees the effects of the mortgage crisis on families renting property from landlords whose houses suddenly get foreclosed on. Without warning, people are evicted onto the streets, she said. A homeless woman who wished to remain anonymous said she was kicked out the same way and spent a day beside a package store, her possessions soaking in the pouring rain.

"With gas prices as they are, you can't just call someone and ask for a lift to a shelter," she said. Agency directors agree that rising fuel and utility costs mean fewer donations - especially in the summer, when vacationing people aren't thinking about understocked co-op pantries and overcrowded extended-stay motels.

"We don't have any additional space right now," said Brent Bohanan, director of Family Promise. "We're referring families to other shelters in Dekalb or Atlanta." However, many have no way of getting there.

'Drops in a bucket'

The Salvation Army and United Way have been hard at work coming up with a solution. Though the project is still in its final stages, Home Sweet Home Gwinnett - a preliminary name - will ideally provide people temporary apartments for 90 days, during which they'd have access to job searches, savings counseling and other programs to help them get back on their feet.

"A homeless shelter is a Band-Aid on a horrible wound that needs serious attention," said Westmoreland, adding people have strong feelings against a homeless shelter in their backyard. "We want a place where folks can go straight to a home instead of a shelter."

Demetrius Jordan, director of United Way in Gwinnett, said Home Sweet Home Gwinnett will have programs to integrate families into the community. "You won't ride down a road and say, 'Hey there's a shelter,'" Jordan said.

However, a lot still needs to come together. Local churches have pledged $100,000 of the $198,000 necessary for the program, but a large funding deficit remains. Though Westmoreland said the Salvation Army can "squeeze more out of a dollar than anyone else," everyone is more strategic about where to invest their dollars; securing multi-year commitments from partners is ongoing.

Money meets the bottom line, Jordan said, but folks who can't afford to donate can volunteer, spread the word and make smart fiscal decisions for their own families. Westmoreland agreed, expressing his hope that greater awareness will mobilize Gwinnettians to action.

"It's all just drops in a bucket," Westmoreland said. "We can do only what the community lets us do."

SideBar: Where to get help

Name: Norcross, Lawrenceville, Lilburn and Duluth Cooperative Ministries

Services: Food and clothes up to six times a year, limited financial assistance once a year,

one to three weeks of emergency housing in extended-stay motels, job ministry

Requirements: People must reside in service area. See Web sites for specific information.

For more information:

www.lawrencevilleco-op.org, 770-339-7887; www.lilburncoop.org, 770-931-8333; www.duluthco-op.org, 770-232-7454; www.norcrossco-op.org, 770-263-8268

Name: Salvation Army

Services: Food, clothing, financial assistance, emergency shelter in extended-stay motels

Requirements: None

For more information: 3455 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville;

Capt. Bobby Westmoreland, 770-963-8802;

www.salvationarmy-georgia.org

Name: Family Promise

Services: Transitional housing in churches, 90-day turnaround period, job search facilities and transportation, day care center for children

Requirements: Must apply and interview, must be families with children, cannot have mental illness, current substance abuse, criminal background, history of domestic violence or bad credit employability, looking for families in transition, not in emergency need

For more information:

737 B Moon Road, Lawrenceville; Brent S. Bohanan, network director

678-376-8950;

www.familypromisegwinnett.org

Name: Rainbow Village

Services: Transitional housing, apartment-style, families can stay up to two years, after-school program, mandatory life skills classes

Requirements: Must apply and interview, must be a family with children, prefer families with a job and a car, looking for families in transition, not in emergency need

For more information:

400 Holcomb Bridge Road, Norcross; Mary Jane Labonte, 770-446-3800; www.rainbowvillage.org

Name: Impact! Community Outreach Center

Services: Transitional housing services

Requirements: Families, low, very low and moderate income

For more information:

1845 Satellite Blvd., Suite 100, Duluth;

Alice Ramsey, director of community service, 678-808-4477;

www.theimpactgroup.org

Name: United Way

Services: 2-1-1 helpline to connect people with local resources

Requirements: None

For more information:

2763 Meadow Church Road, Suite 210, Duluth;

Demetrius Jordan, area director, 678-417-6434;

www.unitedwayatlanta.org

Source: Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services. For more information, visit

www.gwinnettcoalition.org.