After nearly three years of talking about opening a homeless shelter, Homefirst Gwinnett is just about to cross the finish line.

Officials with the group, which was established in summer 2018 and is part of the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Gwinnett County wing, said they anticipate opening their shelter in Norcross sometime this summer. It will be the only homeless shelter in Gwinnett County once its doors open.

“It feels tremendous,” HomeFirst Gwinnett Director Matt Elder said. “This has been a long time coming. We were ready to get everything going last March or April and then COVID hit and changed everything so dramatically.

“With the way our shelter is set up to have the three bedrooms and common areas, COVID made it far too difficult to try and make that work.”

An exact opening date for the shelter — whose location is not being publicized by HomeFirst Gwinnett in order to protect the privacy of the people it will help — has not been set yet. Once it does open, however, it will be able to help up to 20 residents at a time.

That includes both mothers with their children as well as single women.

“They can stay up to 90 total days,” Elder said. “They’ll have full wrap-around case management services like mental health and substance abuse. We have a clinic run by Good Samaritan Health Clinic (so) they’ll have access to affordable healthcare and then we’ll bring in other partners for support services in addition to that.”

HomeFirst Gwinnett Norcross Assessment Center Director Brandee Thomas said the goal for the shelter is provide some stability for people facing homelessness while they try to get back on their feet.

“Our goal is to be able to, one, provide a home-like environment for the residents that we are able to serve and to give people a strong foundation for the next step,” she said.

There is a need for housing assistance in Gwinnett County. Elder said HomeFirst Gwinnett’s Norcross Assessment Center opened in March 2020 and has helped more than 10,000 people since then with assistance such as eviction protection, housing assistance with help from community partners or other services, such as health services.

“It’s a massive step forward for not just us, but our community,” Elder said. “We’ve been incredibly blessed to be supported by the Board of Commissioners, especially with Chairwoman (Charlotte) Nash and now with Chairwoman (Nicole Love) Hendrickson and all of the commissioners, with funding and programatic support and by the community as a whole.

“Our nonprofit partners have been simply tremendous in terms of being a part of the solution and wanting to really rally around the idea that we can being to develop a new comprehensive approach to ending homelessness here in Gwinnett County.”

Elder and Thomas said the traditional stereotype of who is homeless does not match the reality of homelessness. They said the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, helped demonstrate that by causing people who previously would not have fit the stereotype of a person facing housing instability but who fell on hard times as the pandemic took its toll on the economy.

Elder said the pandemic’s impact on the economy was a major reason why HomeFirst Gwinnett has helped as many people as it has since March 2020.

“We’ve seen a growth in the overall homeless population with regard to people who are in need of emergency housing solutions and shelter,” Elder said.

Thomas said many calls that came into the assessment center were from people who did not have previous experience dealing with homelessness.

“From our end, we’ve received lots of calls from individuals, or emails or applications, for individuals who are seeking assistance that have said, ‘I’ve never been homeless before, I’ve never been in situation like this before, I’ve always been the person other people come to,’” she said. “So, the pandemic, unfortunately, is a great equalizer.

“Whether you have multiple college degrees or you are an entry level worker, it impacted everyone across the board throughout Gwinnett County.”

This won’t be the only shelter HomeFirst Gwinnett plans to operate, however. It’s long-range vision is to expand and eventually offer services in other parts of the county.

“This is step one for us,” Elder said. “We believe this boutique kind of model of being able to really design shelter services around what is the need on the ground locally is the way to move forward.

“And, with the scale and the size of Gwinnett County, being able to put four or five of these locations spread out geographically around the county can help us not only meet the overall need of the community, but also zero in and target what the needs are in Lawrenceville versus in Norcross, or Buford, or Duluth.

“We’re going to try to focus on the smaller-scale, more boutique style because we can have a lot more impact with that and really begin go target its focus and its service around what is the direct need on the ground in that community.”

HomeFirst Gwinnett is in the process of hiring five resident assistant positions for people who will work in the shelter. Thomas said anyone interested in applying for one of those jobs can do so at the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s website, www.unitedwayatlanta.org.

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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