LAWRENCEVILLE - Janet Russell and other advocates who lobby for the homeless in Gwinnett County seek the answer to a question that has bothered them for years.
"If we can have this new multi-million dollar shelter built for homeless animals here, why can't we have one for homeless people?" asked Russell, recently named top Presbyterian citizen in the greater Atlanta area.
An active member of the Fairview Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, the oldest church still holding services in the metro area, she recently met with government officials, like the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, presenting her ideas about shelters for homeless men, women and families.
However, her personal crusade to local politicians and community leaders ran into a common perception that there isn't a homeless problem in Gwinnett County and that providing a shelter would draw homeless people here, the general consensus being not to concentrate poverty in one specific area.
In response, she redirected her mission to one of creating awareness of the needs of homeless people in Gwinnett County. But the problem is this: There are not a lot of homeless shelter opportunities existing here mainly due to the high cost of providing housing, she said.
"Our idea is to take families in and use churches as shelter," Russell said. "We supply dinner and breakfast for them, and look after their kids in the education building."
Selected as Presbyterian Citizen of the Year, Russell was honored at the 2009 Presbyterian Rally Day on Feb. 12 during a ceremony at the Central Presbyterian Church across from the state capitol. The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the most populous of 173 presbyteries nationwide, recognized her for her work in organizing Run for Shelter, a 5K race/fundraiser to heighten the awareness of homelessness in Gwinnett County.
A little embarrassed about the publicity surrounding the honor, the modest Russell said she was "horrified" when she first heard she had won the award following her nomination by Fairview.
"They kept it a secret," she said. "I had no idea I was going to get it ... but it is an honor."
Her pastor, the Rev. Robert Sparks, said Russell was instrumental in her organization of projects, drawing up plans and assigning people to do various jobs.
"I know Janet's humble about the award," he said, "but we're real proud of her. I know she says, 'Why me?' but she stands out because she saw a need. I'm humbled to have a congregation of people who embody the Kingdom of God."
Organizations working with homeless families are the Salvation Army; Gwinnett Family Promise; the Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry, a food bank; the Quinn House, a place for alcoholic rehabilitation; and Habitat for Humanity.
"We have a mission project, working with Family Promise where we take homeless families and provide them with education, jobs, financial assistance and shelter," Russell said.
Creating the 5K fundraiser took nearly two years, as Russell drew most of her congregation into various volunteer roles. She devoted much of her free time to the endeavor, but still managed a full-time job as a nurse at a Buford medical clinic. A resident of Dacula, she is married with three children.
Russell eventually partnered with the Salvation Army to inaugurate the race. Its goal is renting apartments at fair market value and making them available to those graduating from Family Promise and the temporary shelter of church fellowship halls.
About 300 runners and walkers will be on hand Nov. 14 at Tribble Mill Park in Grayson to take on the hilly 3.1-mile path for the second annual Run for Shelter.
Located at 857 Duluth Highway, Fairview Presbyterian Church was organized on Aug. 9, 1823, by the Rev. Remembrance Chamberlain.