Police said the suspect is homeless and may have set the fire as a result of a domestic dispute with a couple living at the makeshift camp site, which is set in the woods about 100 yards off Noonday Church Road, about five miles northwest of the Square.
At 5:30 a.m., the Cobb County Police Department responded to a call about an injured woman walking down Cobb Parkway, north of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
The woman was 52-year-old Wanda Kight, who was staying at the camp site a half-mile from where she was first spotted.
Officer Mike Bowman said Cobb County police arrested Melvin Hood, 53, in the attack on Kight and Raymond Matthews, 49.
Kight and Matthews, who was severely burned, were both transported to Grady Hospital in Atlanta early Wednesday morning. Hood was charged with two counts of aggravated battery.
Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services also responded to a call to assist patients and extinguish the fire. Bowman said as soon as officers arrived in the area, most of the people in the encampment had fled.
Arson investigators were at the scene Wednesday to determine if an accelerant was used to ignite the blaze.
Bowman said Cobb County police seldom get calls to the homeless camp. Georgia Power operates a large batch of transmission lines in the area and owns five parcels of land around the woods, according to the Cobb County Tax Assessor’s office.
There are three other empty lots owned by Noonday Baptist Church and two other private companies that are surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
A shelter for safety
MUST Ministries, a faith-based, nonprofit charity that serves people struggling in poverty, operates an emergency shelter called Elizabeth Inn just 2.5 miles from the homeless encampment.
The average stay for a person at the shelter at 55 Elizabeth Church Road is six weeks. The Loaves and Fishes Kitchen on Elizabeth Inn’s campus serves almost 80,000 meals a year.
Kelley Henderson, MUST vice president of program operations who oversees the Elizabeth Inn, said the shelter opened at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Henderson said he anticipated a high level of anxiety at the shelter following the fire, but throughout the day the people at Elizabeth Inn were calm.
Henderson said there was not an influx of campers wanting to stay at the shelter, but a line of adults and children started to form outside the shelter at 4:30 p.m. to wait for dinner service.
Safety is a basic need, and alleviating that worry is one of the first things the shelter provides, Henderson said.
“You want to make sure you are sleeping and living in a safe environment,” Henderson said.
After meeting their immediate needs, Henderson said Elizabeth Inn gives a homeless person a consistent environment in which to develop community living skills, such as dealing with a medical condition or reconnecting with estranged family members.
Kaye Cagle, also with MUST Ministries, said the organization partners with United Way’s PATH outreach program to “help get people out of the woods and back on their feet.”
In the past year, MUST Ministries has placed six people into housing, provided shelter for 12 people at the Elizabeth Inn and helped four others overcome specific situations to live independently again.
Henderson said any organization that serves the homeless in a suburban county like Cobb has to make itself plainly visible to those seeking help.
As opposed to a more urban environment, where the homeless population is visible, “in a suburban environment you have people that are out of sight,” Henderson said.
The face of homelessness
There is no such thing as a typical homeless person, Cagle said. Some have mental illnesses or physical disabilities, but more than half of the adults that stay at the Elizabeth Inn have some college education.
“Homelessness is different than it looked years ago,” Cagle said. “Homelessness is a cross section of our population.”
Cagle said the homeless of all ages and races in Cobb County include families, including single women with children.
One homeless mother, Ladawn Martin, has been sleeping on the streets of Marietta with her four children, ranging in age from 2 to 8 years old.
Martin was born in Louisiana, where she was abused and locked in a room with five siblings until she was 7 years old, when Child Protective Services took them from her mother’s custody.
In foster care for a decade, Martin aged out of the program at age 18. She said she never had family support and did not know who to trust.
Martin traveled to Georgia in April in hopes of staying with an aunt, but that plan quickly unraveled, and soon her family was sleeping under a bridge huddled on wet blankets and bags of clothes.
“It was enough to make you want to give up,” said Martin, who added she was determined not to have her kids raised in the foster system.
After searching for a job for months without a car, Martin was hired part-time on July 29 with Amazing Grace Academy, a preschool off South Cobb Drive south of Austell Road.
Her first check was just enough for a week’s stay in a room at Cumberland Lodge, a 1.4 mile walk from the preschool.
Georgia’s homeless population was estimated at 11,366 people, according to a September 2012 study by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
The most recent local figures from June 2011, estimated that 410 people in Cobb were either living on the streets or in temporary housing, according to the “Every Georgian Counts” report by Kennesaw State University.
This ranks Cobb County in the bottom 10 counties of Georgia for estimated rates of homelessness.
Cagle said the homeless count involves input by local shelters, and that MUST Ministries goes out into the woods in teams to document the number of people. However, many of the homeless do not want to participate, meaning the official numbers are generally smaller than the reality.
For the most accurate picture, Cagle points to the Cobb County School District’s Homeless Education Program.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act ensures educational rights for children and youth experiencing homelessness, which is defined as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. For instance, those waiting for foster care placement or living in hotels, campgrounds or emergency shelters.
Last school year, Cobb County served 1,575 children who met the definition of homeless under the act, said Doug Goodwin with the Cobb County School District.
Goodwin added that only two weeks into this year, liaisons with the homeless program have identified more than 300 homeless students enrolled in Cobb County schools.
Want to help?
Marietta Homeless Authority’s Bazaar Extravaganza, a local fund raiser and food drive, will have vendors selling food, jewelry, home decor and much more.
• WHEN: Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• WHERE: 505 Atlanta St. in Marietta, near Grace Pointe Marietta Church
• INFO: Bring seven canned items for a chance to win one of three door prizes.
With just a $5 donation, the Marietta Homeless Authority can distribute 15 pounds of food to a family in need.