'Overwhelmingly sad'
Volunteers try to get accurate count of local homeless

NORCROSS - Four Hispanic men huddle, sleeping in a self-made hut hidden in a wooded area just off Jimmy Carter Boulevard near Norcross.

The struggle that exists among the men who live in the home of tree limbs, tarps, old wood and a mattress is undetectable by motorists on the roadway about 100 feet away.

At 5:30 a.m. Monday about 60 volunteers for two local nonprofits went in search of men like these, wanting to help them, but also hoping to include them in a homeless census being conducted throughout the county.

Part of an initiative conducted by Pathways Community Network and The Impact Group, the count was aimed at getting a better grasp on the number of homeless people living in Gwinnett.

After receiving a heads-up from local law enforcement on a couple of homeless "hot spots," the volunteers split up to search for people to count, question and help.

Volunteers asked homeless individuals and groups questions about their housing and family. The homeless were given food in return for their cooperation.

A short talk with Thomas Fuller, count volunteer and family support specialist for the Latin American Association in DeKalb County, revealed the men living in the small hut were out of work and had been living in the wooded area for about a month.

Thanking the men for their cooperation, Fuller and his volunteer group provided the men with some doughnuts, bagels and a card for the Norcross Cooperative Ministry in hopes it could provide some temporary help.

"He was thankful for the food," Fuller said. "But he looked like he was hungry and tired."

While it's hard to accept there are people who must live under tarps and find shelter inside an overturned shopping cart, volunteer and Stone Mountain resident Nancy Shaw said she was glad she took the time to volunteer her services.

"It's just overwhelmingly sad," Shaw said. "(When you do this) it just hits you that people are out here sleeping on such a cold night. It's just really sad four people only have a tiny space like that."

Pathways Care Coordinator Elizabeth Runkle said Monday's count was the first of its kind in the county. She said numbers compiled in the past have been made of tallies of sheltered homeless, or those living in transitional housing.

Runkle said this year's count is hoped to be a more accurate representation of how many are living on the streets, in their cars or those that are precariously housed, meaning their housing situation is uncertain.

Impact Group President Marina Peed said there is currently no shelter in Gwinnett County where the homeless can find refuge. And while she said she does not know if the results of the count could eventually lead to a shelter, she hopes the numbers, however high or low, will bring awareness to the community.

The data collected will also assist organizations such as Impact and Pathways obtain funding to continue their efforts with programs that assist the homeless.

According to Runkle, the count is part of a larger statewide initiative with about 35 counties conducting similar tallies.

Volunteers will meet again at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Norcross United Methodist Church 2500 Beaver Ruin Road, Norcross to conduct another count, this time going to local hotels and motels seeking out people who have no permanent housing.

Those interested in participating in Saturday's count can contact Runkle by e-mail at elizabeth.runkle@pcni.org or by calling 404-982-0960.

"I'm hoping that we get some more recognition that this is a challenge in our community that can't be denied or swept under the rug any more," Peed said.

SideBar: If you go

· What: Point in time homeless count

· When: Training sessions and counts begin at 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday

· Where: Norcross United Methodist Church, 2500 Beaver Ruin Road, Norcross

· To volunteer: Contact Elizabeth Runkle by e-mail at elizabeth.runkle@pcni.org or by calling 404-982-0960