SMYRNA — Experts say that homelessness is no longer an urban issue. Atlanta’s suburbs are no exception.
“According to the Brookings Institute, for every $72 inside the perimeter (of I-285) that’s raised for organizations like ours, the equivalent outside of 285 is $2,” said Ike Reighard, CEO of the Marietta homeless shelter MUST Ministries.
Reighard and others on the front lines of the fight against homelessness gathered at Vinings Bank Wednesday for a forum organized by Mike Boyce, chair of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. Boyce pledged to end homelessness in the county and invited attendees to join a working group that would devise solutions to the issue.
“I’m really proud of all that we have done here but we’re in silos,” Boyce said. “And we need to find a way to connect the silos.”
Michael Murphy, Boyce’s special assistant for special projects, floated several ideas at the forum, including changing the county’s zoning laws, building so-called tiny houses in people’s backyards, and expanding a county initiative to increase homeownership rates among its employees.
The Marietta/Cobb County Continuum of Care conducts an annual count of the county’s homeless population.
Irene Barton, the CoC’s chair, gave an overview of homelessness statistics in the county. According to fieldwork conducted on Jan. 30, there were 324 people in transitional or emergency housing, 81 of whom were children and 16 of whom were veterans.
There were 127 unsheltered people in the county, a figure that includes seven children and 18 veterans. Half of the unsheltered population were sleeping in the woods and 28% were sleeping in their vehicles.
Joe Savage, regional coordinator for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, said local governments would need to collaborate in order to find housing for all those people.
“One Continuum of Care can’t say they ended homelessness or they addressed it when nationally there are homeless people that are just moving to the next county over,” he said. “So you have to have that regional coordination so that homeless people aren’t coming from other places to your county, because that’s not addressing the issue.”
Savage said the idea that people experiencing homelessness have to “earn” housing by first getting their life in order is wrong.
“This is about housing first,” he said. “Someone can deal with their substance abuse issues a lot better when they’re housed. Children perform a lot better in school when they’re housed.”
Several who spoke at the forum agreed that NIMBYs — short for not-in-my-back-yard — were the biggest obstacle to addressing homelessness.
“I do come today with a level of frustration,” said Luther Washington, the founder of Mableton’s Family Restoration Center. He described how a shelter for 50 men had to close due to neighbors’ opposition when it tried to renew its permit.
“To see it derailed because of some people’s description of homelessness being bad people raising the crime rate … it just blew me away because that’s not the homeless people that I see every day,” Washington said. “None of them are interested in breaking into your house and stealing your car.”
Tyler Driver, the executive director of The Extension, an addiction recovery program serving the homeless in Marietta, described neighbors’ opposition to a shelter the group had proposed as “brutal.”
Reighard said that people would rather blame the homeless for their circumstances than find solutions to the issue.
Monday night, Marietta’s Board of Zoning Appeals shot down plans for a new shelter.
“It’s ironic that in a county that has a very deep spiritual foundation, when it comes to this issue, it seems there’s a gap,” Boyce said.
Organizing the forum and working group was a response to commissioners’ voting to hold funding from area nonprofits earlier this year, he said.
“Unfortunately the board this year did not support funding for the nonprofits,” he said. “The nonprofits that we have, we were not giving them money, we were contracting their services to do things that we as a county should be doing but they do it better than us and probably cheaper. So we’re going to go a different route and a different route is this working group.”