Homelessness, foreclosure, eviction, poverty

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you read those words?

Chances are you have a negative reaction. Perhaps even fear. Hear the word “homeless” and what probably pops into your head is the image of a drunk, dirty, unemployed adult sleeping on a sidewalk or under a bridge in downtown Atlanta. Read the words “foreclosure” or “eviction” and you think of a deadbeat, an irresponsible fool who spends his money foolishly, and not on his mortgage or rent. And someone living in “poverty” is someone who’s lazy, relying on society to pay their bills.

Don’t feel alone. You’re in the majority — but you’re wrong.

• The average age of a homeless person in Gwinnett County today is … are you ready? Six. Georgia has the second highest number of homeless children in the nation. In 2010-2011 alone, the Gwinnett County Schools served over 1,700 homeless children.

• The average foreclosure is the direct result of a catastrophic event such as unexpected illness, death of a provider, a major accident, or job loss. And it affects the entire socio-economic spectrum of our county. Georgia is No. 1 (May 2012) in the nation for foreclosures, a top ten list no one wants to be on. Gwinnett County is “ground-zero” and has been since 2009. But it doesn’t stop there…

• In addition to foreclosures, there were over 26,000 evictions in Gwinnett in 2011 (latest figures), affecting over 70,000 people, including children. Which brings us back to…

• Homelessness and poverty. The majority of homeless families today were hardworking people living from paycheck to paycheck until one of those “catastrophic events” came along. The 2010 Census revealed Georgia’s poverty rate as third highest in the nation—and almost 14 percent of the citizens of Gwinnett were living below the established “poverty line.”

These facts are indeed hard to stomach for a great county like Gwinnett. But, they are the reality we are living in and sweeping them under the carpet or ignoring them will not make them disappear. It will take bold leadership and the entire community — individuals, business, faith-based, and government — to address these issues. And unless and until we are willing to do this, our quality of life will not improve.

The IMPACT! Group (TIG), is a private nonprofit housing agency (established in 1993), based in Norcross. Our mission is: “to transform lives and strengthen communities by providing quality housing solutions”. Over 80 percent of our funding is provided by grants and donations from foundations, churches, private businesses, and people just like YOU. We operate two departments (with a total staff of 12) to accomplish our mission: IMPACT! Transitional Housing and IMPACT! Home Ownership Center.

Our Transitional Housing department currently provides almost 60 percent of the long-term transitional housing available in Gwinnett . While 60 percent sounds impressive, in reality it means we provide 22 housing units — yes, 22 —in a county of more than 850,000 citizens. Our programs offer not a hand out, but a hand up. Our professional, experienced case managers help families to develop and maintain individualized case management plans which tackle the issues that caused their homelessness and prevent them from resolving it. Housing and supportive services give our families the time and opportunity to increase their income, clear up credit problems, maintain a savings plan, and gain valuable life skills and financial literacy.

Other services include child care, mental health screening and counseling, home furnishings, resettlement assistance, employment-readiness, and credit counseling. To date, we are proud to say we have over a 90% success rate—over 90% of our graduates have reached a level of self-sufficiency within 18 months of their graduations from our program.

Our Homeownership Center is staffed by HUD-certified housing counselors that provide: traditional housing counseling, foreclosure assistance, financial literacy and budgeting, first time homebuyer education programs and access to down payment assistance programs. National and regional statistics show that people who complete certified housing counseling programs (such as those provided by TIG) are 60% more likely to save their homes in these current economic times, and are over 50 percent more financially secure than those who do not work with a housing counselor.

The need in our community is great. In 2011 alone, we received over 7,000 requests for assistance from the citizens of Gwinnett. Those families crossed all socio-economic lines and areas of our great county. Unfortunately, though, because of a lack of sufficient resources and space we were able to address the needs of less than one family in five who sought help.

When I was a young boy, my grandmother often said when she saw another in need, “There but for the grace of God go I.” She was right. In these troubled economic times, the need continues to be great. The old images we’ve associated with words like homelessness, foreclosure, eviction and poverty no longer apply. The evidence is right in our own backyard.

To learn more about TIG and how you can help, feel free to contact me personally @ 678-808-4477. Visit our website at www.theimpactgroup.org. Together, we can weather the storm.

Tom Merkel is President/CEO of The IMPACT! Group.