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Groups meet to discuss fight on homelessness

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett County resident Deborah Doyle worked a full-time job with a good salary for 14 years. But a year and a half ago, her employment situation changed.

A victim of the economic crisis, Doyle now works fewer hours and earns less money. She’s noticed a “great, great difference” in her finances — and her experiences helped her identify with the women in a documentary she watched Wednesday during a program on homelessness at The Salvation Army in Lawrenceville.

“Me and my two sons could easily be in that situation, and we didn’t do anything,” Doyle said. “No one’s taking drugs or doing anything that people think makes you homeless.”

The Salvation Army showed “On the Edge,” a film by Diane Nilan and Northern Illinois University professor Laura Vazquez that follows the struggles of seven women trying to escape homelessness. The women, most of whom have children, don’t live on the streets. They stay in shelters, cheap motels or with friends, often moving frequently.

About 30 people from churches and social service organizations came to The Salvation Army’s Lawrenceville Corps Community Center to watch and discuss the documentary.

The so-called “invisible homelessness” is reflective of what is happening here in Gwinnett County, said Debbie Wengrow, the social services director for The Salvation Army Gwinnett.

“We feel like the homeless are underserved in Gwinnett County,” Wengrow said, noting that The Salvation Army is the only organization that she knows of in Gwinnett that provides emergency services to families in crisis. “The helping organizations certainly know they’re here, because they come to us for assistance.”

The numbers of families seeking help is rising, Wengrow said. Compounding the problem, funding is disappearing.

Wengrow said she wanted to bring people together to talk about possible solutions to the problem. She said those who attended Wednesday’s program are part of networks that can provide “a lot of manpower, muscle and kindness.”

Suzy Bus, the director of the helpline at the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, said the severity of homelessness and the depths of the need in Gwinnett are no secret to those who work in social services.

“What struck me is how important it is for the facts and information to be out in the community at large,” she said.

Some of the information in the documentary brought tears to the eyes of those watching — facts like the average homeless person is a child, that someone earning minimum wage would have to work 120 hours a week to afford an apartment and that most shelters won’t accept teenage boys, causing some families to break apart.

“More people out in the community probably care more than we give them credit for,” Bus said. “You have to have the heart of a rock not to be moved by what we saw.”

For Doyle, the documentary showed that the homeless aren’t just men on the street corner holding signs. The homeless are families with children.

She said she thought it was a “wonderful idea” for The Salvation Army to gather people together “not just to talk about the problem, but to be proactive and do something about the problem.”