I recently met with the MDJ to discuss my response to last summer’s articles concerning a “tent city” in Cobb County. As a volunteer assisting jobless/homeless folks, from displaced CEOs to veterans, domestic violence victims and children, one thing is apparent — for the homeless, every minor issue becomes MAJOR, leading to stress and trauma. While numerous organizations offer health and human services in our community, many homeless persons remain underserved or unable to access resources.

Like you, we were attracted to Cobb for its culture, amenities, schools, safety, etc. Yet we perceive a gap that needs addressing, rather than complaining or ignoring. The lack of affordable housing, with rents spiraling out of control due to affluence and gentrification, severely squeezes service workers and laborers who live paycheck to paycheck and are one financial hiccup away from eviction. Many Cobb citizens care: They volunteer at MUST, other charities and stretch limited resources. Coordinated Entry, introduced in January 2018, prioritizes homeless persons for housing, but 180 individuals remained on the list at last count, with a wait of 2 to 4 weeks for the top priorities, and due to shortages of affordable housing, up to 4-6 months for the others. While waiting, these “unsheltered” persons are subjected to rodents, little/no health care, trespassing, crimes like assault and rape — leading to citizen complaints, arrests/jail, court, ER visits and, too often, death. Indeed, 85 homeless persons, including veterans, have perished in Cobb since 2013 that we know of! When the costs of investigations and burials are included, the burden on Cobb taxpayers runs into millions. The two main Cobb ambulances quoted $1 million-plus transporting indigent persons in 2016.

Jurisdictions in two other states have found an answer: “I love my job … helping people,” said a 10-year veteran Homeless Outreach officer in Florida. In his and a similar HO program in Texas, the officer — usually paired with social worker — invites unsheltered homeless to take a different path, and then transports them to a safe/secure place with services. Mirroring this concept, 13 ordinary Cobb citizens — veterans, police, ministers, social workers, educators — compiled a 2016 feasibility study to show our community could offer a central location for a transition shelter for ‘waiting homeless’ surrounded by 90% of needed services already in place — health/medical, counseling, IDs, job search and veteran services – all within an easy walk! Furnished trailers for dining, classroom training, with hookups for bathrooms and washer/dryers were offered. We proposed privately financed/operated “Cobb Hope Park,” secured by forested, fenced buffer with a locked front gate and controlled admittance, where residents would sign contracts to participate in park maintenance, case management, life/educational/GED/financial/job skills training, and mandated progress toward self-sustainability on a 30-60-90-day supervised schedule. During this term, clients would receive food, housing and connection to Coordinated Entry’s permanent housing while awaiting transition. This offer represented a viable alternative to our current (expensive/wasteful) system of incarceration, neglect, complaining and ER visits.

Applying comparable programs in Texas and Florida to Cobb would save taxpayers millions of dollars. Whereas a night in jail costs $126, this shelter model averages $13 daily! Such a program reduced St. Petersburg’s homeless population from 300 to 25, while crimes committed by homeless people decreased from 3,300 to 2,500 for all crimes. It earned enthusiastic support from government and businesses. Moreover, their homeless now often cooperate with police to identify illegal activity. “One HO officer operates more efficiently than several regular officers constantly dispatched on crime calls,” a sergeant stated.

Designed/contracted by the same developer as Marietta FUMC’s Park on Polk, Cobb Hope Park would be aesthetically attractive with protective green canopy and fencing, with law enforcement close by, in the same block as our county jails, trash recycling center and animal control center. The 13 citizens offered this proposal to the city/county, since the property is owned by the county, we were directed first to the BoC and Sheriff’s office. We proposed private funding — $325,000 for Year 1, then raising endowment/proceeds toward annual base budgets, while obtaining in-kind donations, cultivating future support from foundations, churches and other organizations. We proffered an efficient bargain with 90% of needed buildings and services already in place!

Cobb County has (had) a choice — either to reach out to these traumatized persons, many waiting for housing — or to ignore and enable them in their despair, continuing to punish, uproot and harass, further traumatizing them. We as citizens will pay to care for our homeless neighbors, one way or another.

John Morgan, a retired educator, serves as Cobb Hope Park CEO on the Cobb Collaborative Homelessness Council, and as Willow Ridge Civic Association Neighborhood Watch. A 36-year resident of Cobb County, he has volunteered to help the unemployed and homeless at MUST, CFR, Atlanta’s Samaritan House/Center for Self-Sufficiency, and now at Marietta FUMC Good Samaritan.

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