Homelessness in county a crisis, Cobb Collaborative executive director says

modest homes in Cobb CountyHouses in Fair Oaks -- photo by Larry Felton Johnson

by Arielle Robinson

Executive Director Irene Barton from Cobb Collaborative, an advocacy non-profit organization that works with other non-profits and organizations to help county residents in need, gave us a glimpse into what she says is a crisis of homelessness in Cobb County.

Although the number of homeless people in the county has remained steady for the last few times Cobb Collaborative has tallied the number, homelessness is a multi-faceted issue.

Definitions of who counts as homeless as well as the reasons why people end up without secure housing vary.

Barton broke down the specifics of homelessness in the county.

Who counts as homeless?

Before looking at how many homeless people there are in Cobb, it is important to understand that different local and federal entities have different qualifications as to who counts as homeless.

Barton said that Cobb Collaborative counts the number of people who live in homeless shelters, transitional housing, on the street, couch-surfing and in extended-stays — among other temporary and/or unstable forms of housing — as homeless.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness is narrower, as HUD only includes people in shelters, transitional housing and public, personal or private property not meant for human habitation — like cars, empty buildings, campgrounds and transit stations.

“[HUD] would not include people who are living in extended-stay hotels or who are … sharing an apartment because for the definitions of HUD, they are housed, they are sheltered, they’re not out in the street, they’re not in a park, they’re not in their car,” Barton said.

Because HUD does not include couch-surfers and those who pay out of pocket to live in a hotel or motel for more than two weeks as unsheltered, the number of homeless people in Cobb and nationwide is likely much larger than HUD officially reports.

School districts also conduct an analysis of homeless students that is separate from Cobb Collaborative’s count.

Through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which Congress passed in 1987, school districts receive federal funds to find out which K-12 students are homeless and provide resources like transportation and in a few cases, certain housing needs. The intent of the law is to provide opportunities for homeless children to attend school just as housed children do.

The Act also covers more ground than HUD’s definition of homelessness does.

Among its definition of homeless students, McKinney-Vento includes children and youth who live in shelters, transitional housing, public and private uninhabitable property in addition to youths couch-surfing, in motels and hotels, abandoned in hospitals and unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

What are the official numbers of homeless people in Cobb?

Barton said that as of January 2019, there is an estimated 451 homeless people in the county. The director acknowledged that this number is likely higher.

About 363 adults and 88 children are among the 451 people.

To break it down even further, about 127 people are unsheltered (living in cars, on the street), 178 live in an emergency shelter and 146 people live in transitional housing.

Between the genders, men make up the largest demographic of homeless people in Cobb.

About 70 percent of homeless people in the county who live in a shelter are Black, Barton said.

The same count also revealed that there is a pretty even distribution between Black and white people who live in transitional housing, although the number of Black people is slightly higher.

Latinos and other racial and ethnic groups comprise a much smaller amount of the homeless population in the county as of the 2019 study.

Barton said that there is an overwhelming amount of men who are living on the streets, compared to women, who are likelier to go to shelters, particularly if they have young children. But women with male children may not always stay in a shelter.

“Some females with children don’t want to go to a shelter because if they have a male child they don’t want him to be separated, which happens. I mean it depends upon the shelter’s rules,” Barton said.

Another aspect of homelessness that is of concern is the increase of homeless LGBTQ youth.

“There’s some really rising numbers there because a lot of times their families do not accept them … presenting with their gender or sexual identity,” Barton said. “ And so LGBTQ young people — I’d say up to age 24, 26 — are a rising number of homeless individuals.”

Between the Cobb County School District and Marietta City Schools, it is estimated that 1,800 students fit the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of homelessness for the 2020 school year, Barton said.

The director said that Marietta has the largest number of homeless people. She said this is likely because of the city’s location.

“[Marietta is] centrally located,” Barton said. “There’s the interstate, 75 goes through … there’s underpasses and overpasses and bridges … every city in unincorporated Cobb has homelessness as well, but the city of Marietta has the highest number.”

How is the number of homeless people in Cobb counted?

On a single night in January, HUD requires organizations to go to encampments, shelters, parking lots and any other area where they suspect homeless people may be to count and interview the houseless population.

This practice is called a Point-in-Time count and is done every other year, Barton said.

Some areas around the country do a count every year.

Barton said that the number of homeless people from 2019 may not necessarily reflect the number of homeless people today because of the count being done biennially.

She also said that COVID-19 has interrupted the process of counting.

Tanya Brinkley, a volunteer with Cobb Collaborative’s Homeless Awareness Strategy Team Effort, said that a PIT count is currently being conducted.

The Cobb school district operates a bit differently, as they direct students who fit McKinney-Vento’s requirements to the Homeless Education Program’s number.

Homeless students and/or their families fill out a form that is then sent to the HEP office.

Eligible students must do this process every year as homeless education services are not automatically renewed.

Marietta City Schools also have a HEP form that is sent to the district homeless liaison.

What reasons do people give for being homeless?

The number one reason people in Cobb gave for being homeless is the lack of affordable housing, Barton said.

Barton participated in the 2019 PIT count and recalled the story of one young man she interviewed who lived out of his car with his dog.

“He had a job,” Barton said. “He worked for a furniture moving company. He just didn’t make enough money to get a security deposit and first month’s rent together to move in somewhere.”

The second reason is the loss of a job.

“Of course, the job market has shifted a lot since 2019 and now there’s lots of available jobs — not necessarily jobs that pay well enough to allow people to secure housing — whether that’s renting an apartment or renting a house,” Barton said. “And rents I have heard [are] just skyrocketing because there’s such high demand.”

Barton also said substance abuse, mental illness and families cutting other family members off are some of the other reasons people give.

“It’s hard to conduct a long session with someone when you’re standing out on a dark January night,” Barton said. “So you kind of just get the main reason and not maybe every single incident that happened to get to that point.”

Brinkley said that Cobb County does not foster a housing first initiative and instead, there is a widespread belief in people having to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

She said that mentally ill and/or addicted homeless people — especially people of color who fit into these categories — are burdened with presenting themselves in a respectable manner in order to get help.

“A lack of adhering to proper citizenship requirements contributes to homelessness,” Brinkley wrote in an email. “I am not advocating for proper citizenship, though. My response is to focus on human beings’ needs for permanent shelter. We could stop concerning ourselves with proper citizens and get housing for all. I have noticed that if a person does not conduct themselves as ‘a proper citizen’ then they are denied access to shelter. For example, you must present an ID. HASTE Outreach will take someone to get an ID or whatever they need to access the resources.”

Brinkley said people with housing vouchers are looked down upon, in particular.

“To write about current times, it appears that all over the metro areas that housing choice voucher holders are not the most worthy citizens, as they are being denied apartment homes through non-renewal of their leases, because they are voucher holders,” Brinkley said. “In this strange political and economic time, none of these property owners can be shamed enough about non-renewing leases for many black women and children.”

The dilemma of homelessness and what Cobb Collaborative is doing to help

As mentioned earlier, the numbers of homeless people counted in the PIT have remained steady for the past few times that organizations have counted, but Barton said that with the eviction moratorium ending in the coming months, organizations expect these numbers to rise.

“I would say there’s probably already more unsheltered people,” Barton said. “A couple of the nonprofits who have been providing services during the pandemic like food and things report a higher uptick in people coming to the organizations for food, and they are outreach teams from MUST [Ministries] and I think the Davis Direction Foundation and Zion Keepers. And so these outreach people are out in the homeless encampments trying to make connections and convince people to come into shelters and get on some sort of program so that they can return to a life of self-determination.”

Barton said that evictions from the end of the moratorium will not happen all at once because the evictions must go through the court system. She said there is a backlog of eviction cases that must be handled before any others can occur.

When asked if there is a crisis of homelessness in the county, Barton said yes and that it has been a problem for a while.

“It was a crisis before the pandemic and I think it’s going to be an even bigger one after the moratorium ends,” Barton said. “The fact that we have, really, chronically homeless people, that and the affordable housing question is one that was building for the last several years. And now with just new housing inventory being so limited, apartment rates increasing, I think all of that is going to negatively influence homelessness.”

As a HASTE volunteer, Brinkley does outreach with those who have lost or are in danger of losing their homes.

Brinkley provides people with what HASTE calls Hygiene and Essentials Kits, which contain Kleenex, toothpaste and a toothbrush, socks and a few other staple needs.

The bag also has a resource page that provides contact information for Continuum of Care sites, MUST Ministries or the Center for Family Resources.

Brinkley said HASTE keeps in contact with people until they are back on their feet and have permanent housing.

Barton said she receives calls almost daily, multiple times a day with people in need of resources.

As Cobb Collaborative is an advocacy organization and does not provide direct housing and other needed resources to people, Barton and other Cobb Collaborative employees are tasked with educating and directing people to organizations that will help them with their dilemmas.

What Cobb Collaborative members see as solutions to homelessness

Both Barton and Brinkley said elected officials should commit to a plan that promotes affordable housing.

“As a society, we must place emphasis on actually providing affordable housing for our essential workers,” Brinkley said. “Or maybe the big corporations like McDonalds and Walmart, need to pay their employees the living wage of the area where they work. The Armed Services and federal government provide these entitlements. When [we] keep pushing and advocating that big corporations and big non-profits also provide for their workforce, we may see homelessness go into a decline.”

Brinkley said currently, not much is being done to build affordable housing. She does believe that Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Lisa Cupid is doing the best she can to help, though.

“But [Cupid] is being dwarfed by the Housing Industrial Complex in this area,” Brinkley said. “The motto for property owners is ‘sell at the highest price possible.’ The skilled technicians that work in the housing industry also expect top dollar because the market here is in such demand and they can make a higher wage.”

Barton said that policymakers should incentivize developers to create affordable homes. She pointed to the Walton communities as an example of affordable housing that provides quality service for inhabitants.

The director also said studies of cities that have made housing affordable for residents should be done.

“I don’t know that there are that many [cities with affordable housing] out there — there must be,” Barton said. “Of course, all we hear about is how incredibly high housing costs are, say in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Seattle. But I have to believe that there are communities out there in America who have somehow made this work.”

To get a complete look at homeless numbers and demographics in Cobb from the last PIT count, click here.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing homelessness and are curious about available resources, go to the Cobb Collaborative website or call 678-766-5574.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.