Outgoing Snellville City councilman Roger Marmol has a unique perspective on what it’s like to be homeless, living on the streets without a place to call home and no shelter from the elements.
That’s because he was once homeless himself after he ran away from home more than 15 years ago.
“I don’t want to label homeless people as bad people,” Marmol said at a Gwinnett County budget hearing Thursday night as he called on commissioners to allocate money in their 2020 budget to operate warming shelters. “Remember that warm bed, remember that tonight because there’s people in Gwinnett County sleeping in the streets, under overpasses, in junk yards, bathrooms, different places.”
Marmol is part of a group of people who are raising concerns about the fact that — despite Gwinnett already experiencing a few days and nights at the end of this year where temperatures were in the 30s — the county has not yet opened a warming shelter for residents who need protection from the cold.
The last time Gwinnett County opened a warming center, it was at one location, Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Norcross, in January 2018, when wind chills below zero were forecast.
Marmol and Duluth City Councilman Kirkland Carden, who is running for the commission District 1 seat in 2020, were two of the people at this past week’s budget hearing who called on county leaders to put money in Gwinnett’s proposed $1.83 billion 2020 budget to operate warming shelters — or “weather stations” as Carden refers to them.
“It’s a pretty simple concept that when the temperature goes below a certain threshold, when it gets dangerous for people to be outside, we provide a place for them to get out of the elements,” said Carden, who has been a leader in the calls for opening warming shelters in recent weeks.
Carden said the shelters should not only be available for homeless residents, but also people who are precariously housed or have limited means, such as senior citizens or disabled residents, during cold snaps.
“This isn’t a radically new idea,” he said. “Since we’ve had this recent cold snap across metro Atlanta, DeKalb County has opened weather stations, the city of Atlanta has opened weather stations and Douglas County has opened weather stations. These are just off the top of my head.
“Gwinnett County, as an entity, we have not opened weather stations. That should be concerning because we’re a county of (nearly) 1 million people. We have roughly, some numbers that say a 10,000 homeless population.”
Gwinnett County already has $1 million set aside to address homlessness in the proposed 2020 budget, which commissioners are expected to vote on at their Jan. 7 meeting. The warming station advocates said some more money should be set aside for the shelters, however.
“To me, asking for warming shelter is barely breaking the surface of what must be done for Gwinnett,” Marmol said.
Carden said Gwinnett can use county-owned facilities, such as community centers and senior centers, so he does not believe it would require major funding allocations.
“Think about it like this, if you did it in the libraries, libraries are all across the county,” Carden said. “All you would need is the staff and the equipment, whether it be cots, food for them to snack on. These buildings stay a good room temperature, even at night so you’re not running up a significant cost. You will need staff and volunteers properly trained to deal with the clients coming through that door, but this is all something that’s very doable.”
Lawrenceville resident Teddy Murphy suggested using the OFS facility that Gwinnett officials purchased. The portion of the facility that Gwinnett purchased is regularly used for filming projects.
“I just wonder if there’s something else we can do with this, maybe a warming shelter might be a good idea with that old giant factory that I’m sure has a lot of empty space in it,” he said.
There has been some push, however, against city officials to also step up and take on some of the responsibility of operating some warming shelters. The city of Atlanta takes on the responsibility of operating its own shelters
“I’d like to hold your feet to the fire a little bit,” Murphy said during the budget hearing, referring to Carden and Marmol.
But Carden said the cities in Gwinnett don’t have budgets as large as the county’s, and it would therefore be harder for them to absorb additional costs for operating warming shelters. Some cities, such as Duluth, have budgets in the neighborhood of $20-$30 million while some other cities have smaller budgets.
Carden said the county, with a budget of nearly $2 billion, would be better equipped to handle the cost.
“This is a county-wide issue,” Carden said.
But it remains to be seen how successful the supporters of warming shelter funding will end up being in their quest.
Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said the county has a provision covering warming stations in its emergency preparedness plan. The county has more than 30 community partners that it works with to operate as warming shelters when temperatures get especially low.
Nash also said the county looks at certain criteria, such as temperature and the presence of frozen precipitation, such as snow or ice, when determining whether to open a warming station, she said.
The commission chairwoman expressed an opinion that warming shelters at non-county facilities, such as churches, would be more attractive to residents in need of assistance.
“The problem is getting the people to the shelters, which is why if we can scatter them around to different locations that helps with the transportation, but many times, the folks that are most in need of it are hesitant to come to a county-run facility,” Nash said. “They actually are more apt to go to a facility that’s either a church or something that’s operated by a nonprofit.
“They see the government as a potential threat perhaps is the way to describe it.”