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Homeless census shows progress, but problems persist

Ken Watts | 12/27/2013, 6 a.m.
Sisters Cylinthia and Camille Fitchett lived outside the entrance of the former Candler McAfee Library before civil rights activists and a good Samaritan found housing for them.

In 2013, DeKalb County’s homeless population was 705, an increase of 179 from two years earlier.

The county’s growth bucked the national and state trend of declining homelessness.

The homeless census, conducted by 100 volunteers the night of Jan. 28, found more people without homes even while the numbers of people living on the streets, in shelters and in transitional housing in the Tri-J area – DeKalb and Fulton counties and the city of Atlanta – declined to 6,664 from 6,838 in 2011.

Melvia Richards, housing programs manager for the DeKalb Community Development Department, which oversees homeless programs for the county, said improved gathering techniques may be a factor in the higher totals in 2013.

She also attributes the increase in DeKalb’s homeless numbers to lingering unemployment and higher proportionate numbers of at-risk groups such as veterans and homeless families.

The January census was the sixth since 2003. It peaked at 7,019 at the height of the recession in 2009. This year, DeKalb’s portion of the total Tri-J area homeless rose to 11 percent from 8 percent in 2011.

Statewide, Georgia’s homeless totals also are down to 16,971 in 2013 from 19,836 in 2010, the year the Obama administration launched a strategic plan to reduce homelessness across the nation.

Nationally, the census found 610,042 homeless people on Jan. 28, down from 636,017 in 2010.

In its 2013 annual Assessment Report to Congress, Housing and Urban Development said that there is “significant and measurable progress to reduce the scale of long-term or ‘chronic’ homelessness as well as homelessness experienced by veterans and families.”

It urged Congress not to cut federal funding for homeless programs.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said on Dec. 23 that with the budget situation, there is not enough money to create new programs.

“We’re just able to give local agencies enough aid to extend their existing programs year to year,” he said.

Uncertain federal help means private funding will be critical. Atlanta, where homeless numbers are falling, received a $3.3 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies on May 27 to create an innovation team at City Hall under the control of Mayor Kasim Reed. The team has created a voluntary registry to link the homeless with appropriate available services and resources.

The group is focused first on homeless veterans. The city also has created a new nonprofit that will raise funds from public and private sources to help the homeless.

Richards said DeKalb officials also are focused on veterans and homeless families.

“We’ll be taking a closer look at those groups in the coming year,” she said. “The Veterans Administration will fund another census on Jan. 27 and a survey on the same night to answer questions about them.”

Richards said the information will be used to develop strategies aimed not just at removing the homeless from the streets and shelters, but also stabilizing their lives once they’re placed in housing.

She said that the county is looking for volunteers for the January homeless veterans census. Experience is not necessary.

For more information, call Dr. Josie Parker at the Pathways Community Network at 404-639-9933.