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Local woman down on her luck turns to Salvation Army, who helped her find a ... Home for the Holidays

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Single mom Alicia Evans was nearly out of money, ideas and dignity when she happened into a Salvation Army women's meeting with a friend one Wednesday, seeking help finding a residence with young son Dashaun.

Four months later, she's a success story for the Salvation Army's new Home Sweet Home Gwinnett housing program that assists the homeless or those about to be.

"Ms. Evans is a symbol that this program can work," said Bobby Westmoreland, Army executive director in Gwinnett. "She was traumatized in so many ways when she came to us. It was hard for her, like many, to see herself being a success. We knew she had great chance for success in life, and now, it almost seems like a bump in the road."

Evans found herself in an increasingly common circumstance six years after moving to Snellville from Michigan. Her hours at a fast-food restaurant had dwindled, she'd lost her furnished apartment, and was staying with a friend who could help her and Dashaun for only a week longer. Seeking financial assistance for an apartment, Home Sweet Home temporarily placed her in a furnished one in Norcross and paid her utilities, allowing her to focus on life skills and regaining control of her life.

Instead of offering mere shelter, Home Sweet Home embarked on its course of individual case management, immediately placing Evans in the apartment, then providing financial education and one-on-one counseling to help restore her self sufficiency. The result: Evans, 29, and Dashaun, 9, just moved into their own rented duplex in Lawrenceville. And with hours increasing at Evans' work, she now needs little more than ongoing counseling from the Salvation Army.

Even better, armed with a laptop computer donated by the NFL Wives Association, Evans plans to enter nursing school in January.

"I'd been in an (extended stay) hotel for a few months, but I had nothing," Evans said. "(Home Sweet Home) finally was a program to help me, to keep me encouraged that I can make it."

Begun in 1962, Salvation Army Gwinnett has moved beyond providing just basic shelter and meals with the start of its Home Sweet Home program in October 2008, thanks to about $160,000 from local churches and the Gwinnett Housing Authority. The program placed its first family in an apartment last December in what it calls "rapid rehousing," the quick placement of families in furnished apartments to diffuse the immediacy of their plight. Then, with shelter assured, the Salvation Army preps them for self sufficiency with social workers, drug and employment counselors, vocation trainers, etc.

Six families have been placed in scattered residences already, and Home Sweet Home has another three apartments available, with hopes of soon having 20. Army statistics show that from February through June of this year, Home Sweet Home aided nearly 800 families to some degree, including about 120 with emergency shelter and the six placed temporarily in apartments. At high risk are third-graders like Dashaun, victim of what the Salvation Army says is an 88 percent increase in the county's homeless children from 2006 to 2008.

Remarkably, Westmoreland said an estimated 86 percent of adults placed in apartments find jobs within several weeks, likely requiring only the intended few months of housing.

The focus, however, isn't simply on conquering destitution. The Army's Gwinnett Social Services Director Debbie Wengrow said it's largely about overcoming stigma as well. A licensed social worker, she said she's rescued some from the streets, seen others sob gratefully when moved into a residence. Increasingly, she said, people unabashedly come to the Army's Gwinnett headquarters at 3455 Sugarloaf Parkway, in Lawrenceville.

"It's embarrassing being homeless. There's quite a stigma attached," Wengrow said. "Part of our goal is to break down that stigma. People who go through hard times want to hide from the world, but one of our goals is to get them reconnected to the world."