Staff Photo: John Bohn Lawrenceville's first overnight homeless shelter for men is being constructed in the rear of a building located at 161 South Perry St. in Lawrenceville. Volunteers from 12Stone Church and the Tabernacle Christ of Church are partnering to finish out the facility.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Russell Gray's message to destitute men calling him on the verge of a release from jail used to be fairly cut and dried: "Get to the Waffle House," Gray would tell them, "I'll pick you up."
Gray, a 12Stone Church pastor, is spearheading a project that will broaden the options for down-and-out men in Gwinnett beyond rehab programs, non-profit housing and hovering at diners. Gray's church has partnered with the Tabernacle of Christ Church in downtown Lawrenceville to build the county's first homeless shelter exclusively for men, which is set to open with six beds as early as next week.
When finished, the dormitory set-up will occupy the back rooms of the Tabernacle church, a former movie theater and detention facility (jail cells still occupy the basement) on Perry Street, just south of the rejuvenated downtown square. Gray said the project was approved by zoning officials and city inspectors and has caught no flak from the business community. (One City Council member reached Tuesday said he had not heard of the project).
Unlike other programs, the free shelter will keep an open door to homeless men from a variety of circumstances, including jail releases, foreclosures and evictions, family disruptions and job losses. Measures are in place to screen out violent offenders, and drug addicts will be channeled to rehab clinics, Gray said.
"Usually people think of homelessness like a bowery, people laying out on the street," Gray said. "This is for people who want to get up and out of where they are. They just need an extended hand. I think businesses will be supportive of that."
The initial space, with less than 200 square feet, will include a shower and bathroom, three bunk beds, table space for working and possibly a computer. Funding has come from private contributions and labor has been voluntary.
Bishop Harold Anderson said he hopes shelter occupants will cycle into the Tabernacle church's inter-denominational congregation of 70.
"We're embracing of all," he said.
Ellen Gerstein, director of the Gwinnett Coalition, said the men's shelter should cater to a need that's sometimes overlooked, though data indicate that homeless women and children far outnumber men in Gwinnett.
At last count, Gerstein said 25,000 households in Gwinnett had been foreclosed or evicted. A head-count two years ago tallied 950 homeless people living in Gwinnett, among the highest number in the Atlanta region, she said.
"There is this concern about men coming out of jail, which is a tough thing," Gerstein said. "Get them a place to stay, get them a job."
Other initiatives have been activated.
Earlier this year, the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department partnered with the United Way of Metro Atlanta and the Regional Commission on Homelessness to launch a program that points homeless inmates to shelter, drug treatment, job-skills training and crime prevention classes upon their release from jail. Studies have shown that one in seven inmates is homeless.
With bus stops and plentiful businesses nearby, Gray said the shelter's location should be an attribute.
"We want them to be here at night," he said, "and out looking (for work) during the day."
For more information about the shelter, or to inquire about housing assistance, contact the Tabernacle of Christ Church at 678-377-8824.