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Gwinnett's first true homeless shelter up and running

Staff Photo: John Bohn Carol Karpf, Director of SaltLight Center in Lawrenceville, prepares sleeping rooms for overnight stays by homeless women and children.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Carol Karpf, Director of SaltLight Center in Lawrenceville, prepares sleeping rooms for overnight stays by homeless women and children.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn A teddy bear rests on a pillow, awaiting the next homeless child overnight guest at the SaltLight Center in Lawrenceville. SaltLight Center offers overnight shelter and meals for homeless women and children. Each guest child receives a stuffed animal during their stay.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Ann Grassmyer of Snellville, a volunteer at SaltLight Center in Lawrenceville, discusses her experiences in working with homeless women and children at the center.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- At 7 p.m. each day, guests are welcomed in and ushered toward rooms bearing names like "Strength" and "Hope." A warm meal awaits, as does a warm bed.

When they leave the next morning, showered and well-rested, the women receive bags with uplifting books and food for three meals. The children typically leave with a teddy bear.

Since November, the SaltLight Center has operated as Gwinnett County's only -- and probably first -- emergency homeless shelter. Working out of a Lawrenceville church, its location undisclosed to the public, the center has been an overnight refuge for 44 women and children since its opening.

"The family that was here over Christmas did not want to leave ... we're a very encouraging environment," director Carol Karpf said this week. "My volunteers just pour out love, and that's really what they need."

SaltLight was created by Family Promise of Gwinnett, a branch of a national organization that attempts to mobilize church congregations to "end homelessness one family at a time." In turn, those in need are screened and directed to SaltLight when they call the Gwinnett Help Line, an extension of the Gwinnett County Coalition for Health and Human Services.

The shelter can host up to 12 people at a time, a donated meal, showers and a "goodie bag" of sorts included. Volunteers welcome them in, and another set of volunteers stays overnight at the church to make sure all is well.

From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., families are safe -- 20 women and 24 children so far, Karpf said Friday.

"I've found it very humbling just to know that there's this much need right here in our Gwinnett County," said Ann Grassmyer, a volunteer at SaltLight since it opened Nov. 14. "I think it adds hope for people around here that just need a little encouragement during the night."

Guests are permitted stays of up to three nights, or seven total nights during the length of the center's operation period. Though there's hope to extend the program, the original plan was for SaltLight to stay open during the cold months and close its doors on March 31.

It's not huge, but, considering there was nothing in the county beforehand, it's a big step.

"Some people just need a place to decompress and find out what their next step is without having to worry about finding a safe place to stay," Karpf said. "When they come here that's what we try to help them do."

Solving the emergency crisis

Ellen Gerstein can understand the arguments against it: the denial that homelessness actually exists in numbers large enough to necessitate one; no one wanting one "in my backyard;" the idea that self-responsibility should override handouts.

But Gerstein -- the long-time director of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services -- pointed to children when she recently spoke about the county's need for a homeless shelter.

"What I can't understand is how anybody could not want to take care of a totally defenseless child," she said, "who is homeless by no decision, no acts whatsoever of their own. That's who my heart is going out to."

According to stats compiled by Family Promise of Gwinnett, the county's school system accommodated 1,655 homeless students during the 2010-11 school year. They estimate that 60 percent of Gwinnett's homeless population is children, and half of those children are under the age of 6.

Prior to SaltLight's implementation, Gwinnett County had no true emergency shelter.

Zoning has always been an issue. Plenty of folks are up for the idea of a homeless shelter, right up until the minute they find out it might be located near their own homes or businesses, said Brent Bohanan, executive director of Family Promise of Gwinnett.

SaltLight doesn't have to face zoning confrontations because it's based in a church and can be viewed as an extension of the church's operations.

The bigger issue, though, may be the public's (and government's) willingness to accept that it's actually a problem.

"I think it's taken a while for people to become aware that we actually do have homeless people (in Gwinnett)," Bohanan said. "And the majority of them are actually families with children."

Added Gerstein: "A lot of people just wanted to deny that there was a homeless problem."

Though homelessness is hard to precisely quantify, roughly 48,000 Gwinnett families lost their homes to evictions and foreclosures in 2010. If even 1 percent of those were homeless for an extended period of time, that's 480 families relegated to the streets in just one year.

Many homeless families are placed in extended stay motels or find help through the Salvation Army or food banks, but "that doesn't solve the emergency crisis," Karpf said.

For now, the SaltLight Center is doing that, thanks to about 50 regular volunteers and constant donations. Organizers hope there will be some way to extend the program that's only scheduled to be open for another 2 months.

"We pray that we'll have more funding and that we'll be able to work out something where we can stay open more long-term," Karpf said.

Bohanan said Family Promise's board of trustees is in the process of discussing something more permanent. That will depend on funding, as well as the host church's ability to keep providing a facility.

As word continues to spread, Bohanan said, one question is being answered resoundingly -- there's definitely the need.

"We really feel like within a month or so we're going to be full every night and probably have to turn people away," he said.