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Tribble Mill run a boon for homeless families

GRAYSON - The timeworn adage that "If you build it, they will come" unfortunately applies to the idea of a homeless shelter in Gwinnett, advocates of the county's lesser-privileged citizens believe.

But statistics show the homeless stereotype - the bedraggled character trolling overpasses and park bushes - doesn't necessarily apply in Gwinnett.

Family Promise of Gwinnett County Inc., a not-for-profit support group for families who've fallen on hard times, estimates that 60 percent of the homeless family population in Gwinnett consists of children.

And 50 percent of those kids, the group estimates, are younger than age 6.

A privately organized 5k run/walk event this Saturday aims to chip away at the rising problem of Gwinnett's homelessness amid the current economic doldrums. Call it an exercise of compassion. Call it the "Run For Shelter."

"There's still so many factions of people - from government to residents - who don't realize we have a homeless problem in Gwinnett," organizer Janet Russell said. "I think we need homeless awareness."

A stampede of 200 or so participants through Tribble Mill Park on Saturday morning could point a few eyebrows to the cause. The event kicks off in the Grayson park at 9 a.m. All profits from the inaugural run will go to the Salvation Army.

Russell said Salvation Army officials aim to buy existing apartment units to house mainly women and children, "to help them back on their feet." Funding from the run, she hopes, will help to buy six units this year. Leaders haven't decided which apartments could be purchased, she said.

Russell said she was driven to organize the race by her frustration with urging government leaders for a permanent shelter in Gwinnett. The idea's hardly been popular with officials and citizens alike, she said, who fear a shelter would attract an unsavory element and decrease property values.

"I can see their worry, but these are women and children mostly, and it's just pitiful," Russell said. "(Homelessness) can happen to any one of us. That's the truth."

The age disparity among the county's homeless is reflected in area schools.

Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said the district served about 1,300 homeless students in the 2006-07 school year. In the first months of this school year, the system's seen more than 900 students lacking a permanent home.

Currently, the system serves 816 students, she said.

Organizers hope the Run For Shelter can help kick-start a movement that remedies those numbers. Considering the event's in its first year, Russell called the preregistration number - 200 and growing as of Wednesday afternoon - a small miracle in itself.

"This is a small, not a huge, step," she said, "but it's a step in the right direction."