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A Continuum of Care: Nonprofits helping homeless families

What pictures come to mind when you think of the suburbs? Homes lined up in a row? Families driving to baseball practice or the grocery store? Parents coming home from work to make dinner?

Yes. That exists. More often than not, in fact, families in the metro suburban sprawl have what they need to get by. More than get by, seemingly, as you get into the Ga. 400 corridor and head north.

Many may like to think that just because places like Forsyth County and north Fulton are the richest areas in the state that everyone has it just as good as the next neighbor. But what happens when that neighbor loses their job and gets evicted? Or when the mother of three is abandoned by her husband and his income? What about the identity theft victim? Or the family of a child with an illness that racks up medical bills?

Those families are everywhere. Some trends point to them being more prevalent in the suburbs than ever before.

In 2011, there were 780,000 people in the Atlanta suburbs living below the poverty line — a 159 percent increase from 2000, according to the Brookings Institute.

But just as there are people who can’t seem to make it in any city or suburb, there are people who are making it and who want to help.

“It’s so much about building their confidence. They’re so run down,” said Kathy Swahn, executive director of The Drake House.

Since 2006, The Drake House has served about 360 families – single mothers and their children – from north Fulton, Forsyth County, Dunwoody and east Cobb County through its emergency housing and financial planning program. Its headquarters in Roswell sits across a cul-de-sac from 15 one- and two-bedroom apartments that rented to each family at no cost.

“They can have been evicted, they can live in a hotel, or in their car, or on some family member or friend’s couch,” Swahn said.

Being homeless is a reality for most American families within about six months after their income stops, according to Kim Bolivar, homeless education liaison for Forsyth County Schools. Rates at the county’s two long-term hotels run about $250 a week, leaving little room to save up toward something more permanent.

Neither Fulton nor Forsyth County allows mobile homes to be built anymore.

Mothers who get into The Drake House tend to spend 60 percent of their income on housing, Swahn said. It should be about 30 percent.
“There’s just such a small amount of affordable housing that whatever is available is grabbed up so quickly,” she said.

A transition to permanency

The nonprofit houses single mothers and their minor children in one of the apartments for 90-180 days. During the day, children go to school — wherever they were originally zoned — while parents attend life skills classes and young children attend day care at the headquarters — The Drake Center. They can do laundry. There’s a library. A playground. A teen room for high schoolers. Tutoring rooms for elementary and middle school students. They meet with a career coach and a social worker to address any medical, educational and employment needs.

“There’s a gap that’s growing between poverty and the middle class,” Swahn said. “We get 180-200 calls a month. We interview about 15 families a month, and we place 25 percent of that.”

The Drake House is not the only organization helping homeless families north of Atlanta along Ga. 400.

A community of support

Family Promise is a nationwide faith-based sustainability program that houses up to 14 individuals at a time in 13 churches on a weekly rotating basis. The main idea resembles The Drake House — kids go to school while adults work with people from the organization toward gaining employment at a day center, where young children are cared for and families can do laundry and shower.

A main difference between the two organizations is that Family Promise accepts families with fathers.

Family Promise operates in 40 states and has programs in north Fulton and Hall County, as well as two in Gwinnett County. A branch in Forsyth County has the funding they need to open and the facility for the day center but still needs a few more churches to commit.

The stigma of homelessness and a misconstrued idea of the people who suffer from it is one of the main barriers, many involved in these groups have said. The idea that everyone who is homeless did something they shouldn’t have to get themselves there or that they’re all drug addicts or mentally unstable.

“It is appalling to see the conditions these families are living in,” said Jerry Dupree, interim chairman of the nonprofit. “These are good families that are working hard trying to make it, and they just need some help in getting there.”

Family Promise and The Drake House provide the middle of the road in a continuum of homeless services.

Mary Drake, for whom The Drake House is named after, helped create North Fulton Community Charities, which is most similar to The Place of Forsyth County.

The Place provides emergency assistance, including food distribution and funding to help pay for bills, to anyone in need, not necessarily women with children.

“I see everyone from low-educated people with troubled pasts who are timid to even come in to people with a degree but maybe they’re fleeing a husband and left everything behind, and they don’t have any self-esteem,” said Lynn Sennett, a life and career coach at The Place.

From buying someone a suit to mentoring them on interview questions, Sennett’s role — a relatively new one at The Place — aims to build on emergency assistance by promoting self-sustainability.

This blending of roles and goals between nonprofits bodes well for the people they are serving because they may be less likely to fall between the cracks.

In fact, The Drake House’s Swahn said the executive directors for many of these nonprofits meet quarterly to align their goals and root out unmet needs.

Ideally, people can reach out to North Fulton Community Charities or The Place on an as-needed basis. If they cannot get out of the cycle, they can temporarily save money and receive financial guidance while being housed by The Drake House or Family Promise.

An end result may even be their participation in Habitat for Humanity-North Central Georgia.

The nonprofit Christian housing ministry builds affordable homes available to families who earn 30-60 percent of the Atlanta area median income. Families purchase the homes at or near appraised value using a 30-year, no-interest financing provided by the organization.

Partner families are required to put 200-300 hours of construction “sweat equity” into the house and attend educational classes.

Since its inception in 1995, the local chapter has completed more than 270 homes serving an estimated 1,000 families in Forsyth, Cherokee, Dawson and northern Fulton counties.

However, some groups are still underserved. Single fathers with children, seniors and single men and women get even less help than families with women and children.

Being in an affluent community does have its perks in this realm — there are people who have the resources to help. All it takes is for the word to spread.

“We have kids who come to school and say, ‘I didn’t eat last night.’ So we try to connect them with resources, and I’m so thankful to be living in the county we live in because I feel like we have such a huge support system,” said Amy Gamez, a social worker for Forsyth County Schools and a leader in the push for Family Promise. “Thankfully, we have such a community that’s giving and caring, and so many agencies that are willing to help these families.”