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Gwinnett homeless in need of our help

Which of the following best describes the homeless problem in Gwinnett?

A) Panhandlers on the street.

B) The impoverished sleeping under a bridge.

C) Sign-holders along interstate ramps.

D) Gwinnett County doesn't have a homeless problem.

A, B and C are popular picks because they are the most visible examples of homelessness. I was inclined to pick D because you just don't see much A, B or C here in Gwinnett County.

But none of the answers above accurately describes the homeless problem in Gwinnett. This county's homeless are more typically a single mother with children moving from a relative's home to an extended stay motel to a friend's apartment.

Every day, people are evicted from rentals or outlive the welcome of friends and family. Homes are foreclosed upon. Families are one paycheck from being out on the street.

At the moment, Gwinnett's homeless situation has more questions than answers. Who are these people? Where did they come from? How many are in Gwinnett? Where do they live? And what can be done to help?

The first step in winning any battle is to know the enemy. To that end, on Jan. 28, volunteers will scour the community for a "point-in-time" homeless count. The census-taking will be spearheaded by the Atlanta nonprofit company Pathways Community Network and will be followed by a second count at area hotels and motels Feb. 2.

Pathways is seeking up to 150 community volunteers willing to report at 5:30 a.m. Jan. 28 and, after some quick training, help canvas the county in teams of three to five. Local police precincts identified spots where homeless people congregate, such as day labor sites and food pantries.

Volunteers will conduct five-minute interviews, asking their age, ethnicity and questions such as, "Where did you sleep last night?" As incentive, those willing to answer the questions will receive a care package of toiletries, socks and other essentials.

"This is the first time that a large-scale count will be held in Gwinnett County," said Elizabeth Runkle, Pathways care coordinator who is leading the campaign for volunteers. "Past counts have yielded numbers around 400, but that was a count for sheltered homeless, not hidden homeless."

By comparison, a 2007 count in Cobb County found 537 people unsheltered and living in emergency shelter and transitional housing, which aligns with the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) definition of homeless. That definition, Runkle said, describes those living outside in a tent or a car or in emergency housing that is being paid for by a service provider.

The upcoming point-in-time count will cast a wider net to also reach the "precariously housed" - "couch surfers" and those living week to week in extended stay motels who haven't shown up in previous counts. Runkle expects this count's number to be closer to 2,000.

The data will better identify who is homeless (age, sex, ethnicity, etc.) and where they live. "(The count) will allow us to move from talking anecdotally to providing solid data," said Bill McCargo, who serves as a Gwinnett representative on the Homeless Task Force. The data will assist service providers in aiding the homeless and in obtaining federal money to continue those efforts.

Marina Peed, executive director of The Impact Group, which offers a range of housing services from homelessness to home ownership in Georgia, understands that the call for volunteers is critical for an accurate homeless count.

"We're concerned if we don't have enough feet on the street, we'll have an undercount," Peed said, adding that would affect potential funding and the strategies employed to help the unsheltered.

Gwinnett County has no traditional homeless shelter, although groups such as Peed's, churches and other organizations often help find and pay for transitional housing. Gwinnett organizations, led by the Salvation Army, are looking at two models to help the homeless. Neither looks like the traditional homeless shelter we're familiar with.

One would be "Housing First" units, where families step into a more-traditional housing situation - an apartment or house - not a group shelter. The second is a Family Assessment Center (they don't even call them homeless shelters anymore) that would provide shelter, education, day care, etc. Both models share the goal of eventually getting families into their own home.

If you want to see what homelessness looks like in Gwinnett, and more importantly play a role in fixing the problem, volunteer for the count. You - and Gwinnett County - will be much better prepared to answer the question above.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com or call at 770-963-9205 ext. 1104.

SideBar: What we know now

· There are no shelters for homeless families in Gwinnett.

· The Gwinnett County School System accommodated over 3,000 homeless students during the 2005-2006 school year.

· In 2006, there were 20,485 evictions and 6,130 foreclosures in Gwinnett County. At the average family size of 2.5, that equals approximately 66,537 family members that lost housing in 2006.

· It is estimated that 60 percent of the homeless family population in Gwinnett County are children and 50 percent of the children are under the age of 6.

Source: Family Promise of Gwinnett County Inc.

Join the effort

· Wanted: Up to 150 volunteers to conduct point-in-time homeless count in Gwinnett.

· When: 5:30 to 9 a.m. Jan. 28 for street counts; 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Feb. 2 for hotel/motel counts.

· Contact: To sign up, send an e-mail to Elizabeth Runkle at elizabeth.runkle@pcni.org or call 404-639-9933.