While it may seem like an uphill climb, Cobb has several organizations dedicated to helping with the problem of homelessness, including MUST Ministries, Sheltering Grace and the Center for Family Resources. While the different agencies battle homelessness differently, they all seek to end the cycle of poverty that leads to residents living on the streets, in the woods or in a shelter. In 2011, the most recent year statistics were available, the Georgia Department of Community Services reported there were 410 sheltered or unsheltered homeless people in Cobb, though some think that number may have increased since then.
In Marietta, MUST Ministries’ Elizabeth Inn shelter, which houses 40 homeless men and 25 women and children, turned away 60 women, 60 men and 49 children in September, said Michael Laird, director of the Elizabeth Campus. In December 2011, the shelter turned away 20 men and fewer than 10 women.
“We are being overwhelmed here,” he said. “We stay at 98 or 99 percent capacity all the time.”
And it’s not just MUST that has seen an increase, Laird said.
“All the shelters are being inundated right now,” he said. “We’re getting people from Atlanta; we’re getting people from Rome, from Cartersville.”
Part of the cause is the elimination of services at mental health facilities in Rome and Milledgeville due to cuts in funding, putting mentally ill people on the streets. And others who’ve lost jobs in recent years have finally exhausted all their options, Laird said.
“Primarily it’s the stress of the economy that’s causing these changes,” he said.
The increase in homeless residents in Cobb has led MUST, an agency that has served the homeless and those in danger of losing their homes since 1971, to create a new program in which a select group of volunteers is specially trained to act as case managers for homeless people who are unable to obtain housing in the shelter. Laird said they will work with a homeless person to go beyond the nonprofit agency’s traditional role of providing food and advice to the homeless.
MUST is training six volunteers to handle the tasks. Laird would like to have at least 10 volunteers in the program so each one can deal with about six of the 60 homeless people that have been targeted for the program.
The program will start with teaching foundational needs to the homeless, like showing them ways to get food, finding out if they have problems like metal illness that are preventing them from getting a job, or if they have financial barriers, such as having a foreclosed home on the books.
The next step is trying to find income for the homeless people. This includes helping them obtain the veterans or Social Security benefits they might be entitled to. Laird said they will also look at simple issues that could be holding people back, like not having the identification necessary to collect benefits.
Finally, the volunteers, who will work with an individual for about an hour a week, will teach the clients “old fashioned” ways to save money, such as making sure they don’t spend too much on housing, Laird said.
“We’re going to teach them to make better decisions, and that’s the most important thing,” he said.
The program seeks to help break the cycle of homelessness and keep people in stable housing with a job or other steady income for the rest of their lives, said Kaye Cagle, MUST’s marketing director.
“We’re forming personal relationships with them,” she said.
Pat Eddlemon, who has volunteered with MUST since the early 1990s, said she jumped at the chance to take part in the new program.
“I believe in helping them and giving them what they need, but it’s like teaching them to fish,” she said. “It’s so much more important than giving them a fish.”
Between 400 and 500 people live without homes within five miles of the Elizabeth Campus, mostly in the woods, Cagle said.
Marietta Police Officer Michael Gardner said a large number of homeless live in the woods off Interstate 75, near the Canton Road Connector exit. He said many of them live in the area because it is close to MUST, and they rarely cause problems.
“We only make arrests if there are actual problems,” he said.” The only ones I’ve noticed are in transit, they’re not begging.”
MUST isn’t the only nonprofit helping the homeless in Cobb. Sheltering Grace has provided homes for 90 new and expectant mother with no place to go since it started in 2006.
Not only is demand up, executive director Dr. Ralph Bell said the agency raised $210,000 in 2011, but donations are down by $45,000 from this time last year.
“We have donors, even though they’re still giving money, they don’t give as much,” Bell said.
Sheltering Grace has two three-bedroom houses in Cobb, with each woman and child getting their own room. Bell said it is the only shelter in Cobb dedicated to pregnant homeless women older than 21.
“There’s shelter all over the place, (but) they really don’t want pregnant women because of the liability,” he said.
Bell said the program seeks to teach women to go from dependency and dysfunction to independent living. After the child reaches nine weeks old, the shelter works to set the mother up with a job. The jobs often turn out to be minimum-wage positions, like working at McDonalds, though he would like to work more to help the mothers get jobs in more corporate settings where they can build a career.
The faith-based shelter also has Bible study and chapel services, while teaching mothers life skills.
Like MUST, Sheltering Grace has to turn away some homeless because of high demand, Bell said.
“We’ll get five or six calls per week that we actually turn away because we’re full,” he said.
Kandi Whyte, 25, came to Sheltering Grace in mid-August. Now 37 weeks pregnant, the native of Jamaica said she was referred to the shelter after she was kicked out of her stepmother’s house in Lithonia.
“I’m keeping strong faith in regards to God and meeting new people,” she said. “I’ve met some great young women who have a really stable head on their shoulders. We help each other out and support each other.”
Whyte now hopes to attend Chattahoochee Technical College to study to become a certified nursing assistant or patient care technician.
Andreshia Smith, 21, said she also came to Sheltering Grace in August. She gave birth to son Brandon two weeks ago. She said her mother is dead and her father isn’t in her life.
“I had no family support. … I had to come somewhere,” she said. “I didn’t want to be on the street when I had the baby.”
With the help the shelter provides, she now feels she can move forward. She would like to get a job in daycare.
“It’s a blessing,” she said.
Arielle Haynes, marketing and communications associate for the Center for Family Resources, said her agency has seen an increase in demand as well. The Center provides five units of short-term housing for up to 90 days, which is intended for families where the parent needs help while starting a job, and 28 units of long term housing for up to two years, where parents learn life skills while searching for jobs.
Haynes said that layoffs and workplace consolidations continue to create demand for housing for the homeless. She advises people to be prepared in case something happens.
“If people would save their money for a rainy day, it might provide a cushion,” she said.
In addition to housing, Center for Family Resources provides a food pantry and utility bill assistance for between 10,000 and 12,000 Cobb families a year.
If people are looking to assist the homeless, MUST’s Laird advises them against giving a few bucks to someone who is holding a sign on the street.
“It might give somebody a meal, but it doesn’t really break the cycle,” he said. “In reality, we need to change the whole operation. Giving somebody a handout will help for a little bit, but it won’t make real social change.”