The vacant strip of county-owned land runs next to Cobb Parkway, near a busy highway intersection where Canton Road Connector leads to Interstate 75.
A road behind the spot connects the Cobb Electric Membership Corporation offices and MUST Ministries’ Elizabeth Inn campus.
At meal times from Saturday morning to Sunday evening, several homeless outreach groups park trailers in the space to pass out warm food.
Larry Leonard, who organizes the Light of Hope ministry for Pleasant Grove Baptist Church off Whitlock Avenue, said volunteers arrived at 1 p.m. Sunday to setup, pray, talk to the people in need and serve food.
By 1:15 p.m., Leonard said a Cobb police officer arrived and told the church group they could not use the property to feed the homeless because they were trashing the Cobb EMC property.
“We have had too many calls,” Leonard said one officer told him while taking his name and information.
Three other Cobb police cars arrived, Leonard said, with more officers telling each homeless person they could not be there.
The group was forced to move 200 feet off the highway near the MUST Ministries property. Then at 1:30 p.m., Leonard said he was told the only space the group could operate was within the gates of the Elizabeth Inn campus, which is not linked to the meal service by Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.
Sgt. Dana Pierce with Cobb Police said complaints did not come from Cobb EMC or MUST Ministries, but from other businesses in the area about people loitering, piling up trash, walking in front of traffic, public intoxication and criminal trespassing.
“They have had feces over there” and verbally assaulted a woman at the bus stop, Pierce said. “(The businesses) are just quite frankly tired of it, as I am understanding.”
The problem, Pierce said, was not just with the activity on Sunday morning, so police will continue to respond each time there is a concern.
“This has been an ongoing situation,” Pierce said.
Filling space at centralized location
Pleasant Grove Baptist Church has been feeding the homeless since 1991, moving to the Cobb Parkway location a year ago where volunteers from the youth group, choir and deacons serve roast beef, fried chicken, vegetables and bread.
“It is home-cooked meals every time,” Leonard said. The group also hands out bottled water, crackers, and fruit, as well as hats, gloves and blankets in the winter.
Twenty-four hours after the encounter with Cobb police, Leonard was still uncertain if there should be efforts to move the operation. But as of Monday morning, Leonard planned to still arrive on the strip of land next Sunday afternoon.
Leonard said the spot is centrally located between the homeless encampments along Interstate 75 and extended-stay hotels off Cobb Parkway.
On Monday morning, Kevan Espy, vice president of marketing and corporate communications for Cobb EMC, said the nonprofit electric cooperative, did not initiate a complaint to police. In fact, Espy first heard about the Sunday activity through a post on the company’s Facebook page.
Cobb EMC, which has operated near that busy intersection since the late 1950s, is not troubled by the homeless outreach efforts because there is a fence separating the property, Espy said.
He said there have not been any incidents with the homeless, and if there were problems Cobb EMC would contact the charity organizations directly.
“Cobb EMC supports MUST Ministries,” Espy said. “We have been neighbors for years.”
Pierce said if the trailers were parked on private property there would not be a situation for police to address, but MUST Ministries has not opened its gates to the outside charities so far.
Still, operating on the county’s property will no longer be allowed because of the “unlawful” behavior by people accumulating in the area, he said.
A need that MUST be met
By Monday afternoon, Kaye Cagle, MUST’s marketing director, had not heard about the police response over the weekend and said information often spreads that is not true.
Cagle said MUST Ministries serves three meals a day to their clients, totaling 81,734 meals a year.
The Elizabeth Inn shelter sleeps 64 people, but overnight guests must have photo identification, with Social Security cards or birth certificates for children.
Occupants must be sober in order to stay at the Elizabeth Inn, according to MUST Ministries “Frequently Asked Questions” webpage.
“The shelter is a work recovery program and once you are in, you will need to have a job within 10 days,” the webpage states. “The maximum stay is six weeks.”
On weekdays many homeless people are fed by MUST who are not housed at the campus. But on the weekends, food is only provided at the shelter to those who are housed there, so many charity groups have formed to fill the gap.
The U.S. Census reports about 12.6 percent of Cobb’s population is living in poverty. That’s double the 6.1 percent from 2000.
One charity that pulls into the stretch of roadside is Floyd Road Baptist Church in Austell’s In the Shadow of the Steeple ministry.
Forty-five volunteers reach three different locations, once serving 97 people in one day. The group is sponsored by the church and through yard sales.
“The Lord has really blessed us,” said the charity’s organizer, Lennis Collins.
For nearly eight years, each Saturday, Collins said In the Shadow of the Steeple has prepared food such as baked chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and veggies.
“I feed them good to bring them in,” Collins said, adding people in need are also given a Bible message.
“They are very respectful,” she said.
Although Collins had not heard about Sunday’s issue, she said in the fall police told many homeless men not to gather near the street.
Collins said she expected the same thing to happen again if tents were set up. She even offered the men trash bags to keep the area clean.
“It does looks awful from the highway,” Collins said.
Worries about the next meal
After being forced by the Cobb Police Department to vacate the land on Sunday, Leonard’s first call was to Marcia Fox, who runs Give Homeless Hope, Inc.
After living in Acworth since 1993, Fox went on a mission trip to Kenya in 2009. When she returned, Fox said she wanted to do something locally. That Christmas Eve her family served their first meal to the homeless.
“I had never been exposed to the homeless before that,” Fox said. “After the first week we were just in love with them and we saw how they needed simple things.”
Now, each Saturday evening at 4 p.m., 20 to 30 volunteers with her charity serve 60 to 100 people, who are 90 percent men.
For more than two hours, Fox said members of the community, with their children, serve pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, lasagna and ham out of a trailer.
“It is really like a family atmosphere,” Fox said. “We provide them a full, hot meal every week.”
Even though the men served often suffer from family issues, mental illness or addiction, “they are not throwaways of society,” Fox said.
The men are just like anyone else, just struggling through a series of problems.
“What surprised me is how personable the homeless are,” Fox said.
Give Homeless Hope, Inc. is about building relationships with “down home” people who appreciate the grassroots effort.
The group also provides 80 to 120 tents a year, some brand new or used donations, as well as goodie bags of toilet paper, batteries and protein.
“The ones that we serve are living in the woods or in their cars,” Fox said. “Candles are a huge thing they need.”
This past Saturday, Fox said her group was able to serve a meal without interruption by Cobb police officers, but she is worried the next dinner will be shut down if the charity pulls into the Cobb Parkway location.