Matt Elder has an ambitious but-easy-to-sum-up goal for what he and officials from Gwinnett County and the United Way want to accomplish: the eradication of homelessness in the county.

Elder recently left his role as executive director of Family Promise of Gwinnett County to fill the new HomeFirst Gwinnett director position that the county and the United Way teamed up to create. In his new role, Elder will coordinate efforts among several community groups.

They will help not only the people in Gwinnett who don’t have homes, but also those are “precariously housed,” meaning they are potentially one unexpected bill away from being unable to pay their monthly rent or mortgage.

“The ultimate goal is very simple: It’s just to end homelessness,” Elder said. “There is nothing short of that, at least for me. There are short-term benchmarks that we’ll hit along the way, but at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to end homelessness in any and every way possible.

“That may sound a little, I don’t know, Utopian or fantasy land, but I feel like we have to keep that as the end result in order to keep our eye on the prize.”

The issue of homelessness is one that Gwinnett leaders are now working with the United Way, Primerica and the Gwinnett Chamber to solve.

Officially, the state count for the homeless population in Gwinnett County was pegged at 263 people in 2017, among the 10 highest in the state. That number includes 179 people who were staying in emergency and transitional housing and 84 people who were unsheltered.

But Elder and Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services Director Ellen Gerstein said the true number is unknown and likely much higher than the official count.

“That’s a really hard number to quantify because they’re really hard to count,” Gerstein said. “The government has one definition and they want you to count it on the coldest day at the end of January, and it’s almost impossible to do it in Gwinnett because of our landmass and the amount of time they give us to prepare with no resources.”

The coalition also looks at other data, including the number of children receiving free and reduced meals at school, eviction and foreclosure numbers, Gwinnett County Public Schools data on the number of students living in extended stay facilities.

“That data gives us a little bit clearer picture, but it still isn’t perfect,” Gerstein said. “It doesn’t count somebody who is living on somebody’s couch — you know, kind of the hidden homeless in our community that we know about and have talked to on the phone.”

Gerstein estimated as many as 25,000 households could be homeless or at risk of being homeless.

Gwinnett County commissioners committed $500,000 in this year’s budget to battle homelessness, and part of that is $50,000 that covers half of the funding for Elder’s position.

“The Board of Commissioners’ priorities set earlier this year include recognizing homelessness as a persistent issue and leveraging resources with community partners,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said after the position was created last month. “Offering a continuum of care for the homeless is listed as a two-year goal.”

Elder, who grew up in Lawrenceville, comes into the position with some experience dealing with the county’s homeless and precariously housed residents. He led Family Promise, which operated the only homeless shelter in the county, for 16 months, leaving at the end of June.

He worked with Gwinnett County’s community development, affordable housing and homeless programs before that.

“I have the utmost confidence in Matt’s abilities and am so encouraged that he’s the one at the helm,” Gerstein said.

Earlier this month, United Way of Great Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Tim Pakenham said, “We are delighted to have the experience of Matt Elder to lead and help us serve the community with this all-important initiative in Gwinnett.”

Elder said a common misconception among the general public is that all homeless people are unemployed, but he said that’s not true at all.

“When I was at Family Promise, more than 60 percent of the families that we brought in had jobs when they came in; they simply didn’t have a job that paid them enough money hourly or full-time to afford to live in Gwinnett,” he said.

A key issue is the availability of affordable housing, of which Gerstein said Gwinnett has little. Elder said the average rent in Gwinnett, according to figures gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, is $1,063 per month. He did not have data on the average monthly income readily available Friday.

The Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Service pegged the mean annual household income in Gwinnett at about $80,034.

Gerstein said there is a balancing act between cost of housing versus the amount of money a person makes to keep in mind.

“The formula that’s supposed to work for households is you’re not supposed to spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent,” Gerstein said.

One of the major projects Elder is trying to get done initially is the creation of a comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness, which he hopes to have completed by the end of the year.

Another project he is focusing on is setting up a place that can serve multiple functions, including offering a shelter, assistance services and assessments of a person or family’s needs. This place could also serve as a sort of clearing house that can point people to agencies and nonprofits that can help with their specific needs.

There are dozens of agencies and organizations in Gwinnett that deal with the homeless and poor, including groups such as Family Promise or Rainbow Village, faith-based organizations, cooperative ministries, the Salvation Army and the Partnership Against Domestic Violence.

Elder plans to work with each of those groups, pulling their resources together to create a unified road map for battling homelessness in the county.

Elder will also work with the Gwinnett Coalition when it does its biannual count of the county’s homelessness for the Department of Community Affairs in January.

“We have to be flexible, we have to be versatile, we have to be lean, mean and ready to adapt as things change, because if the system isn’t adaptable, then it has the potential to fail, and that’s the last thing anybody wants,” Elder said.

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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