The face of homelessness is probably more familiar than you realize. In fact, a neighbor, or the student in your child’s classroom, or a co-worker or the teens strolling around in a mall might be carrying out daily life despite the uncertainty of not knowing where they’ll live month to month.
In Rockdale County, it’s sometimes easy to forget the plight of the homeless. There aren’t people in urban centers pushing shopping carts with all their worldly belongings inside and sleeping in the parks. And many families hit by hard times often don’t think of themselves as homeless because they have roof over their heads, even if it means doubling up with relatives and friends or living in a motel. But just because they are not often seen, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
This is a reality that Howard Horton knows too well.
Horton and his four children were forced to leave their rental home in Conyers when he got behind and was unable to pay the utilities. Horton and his three boys have been staying at the Garden of Gethsemane shelter in Covington since October. His 19 year-old daughter decided to move in with her boyfriend because she could no longer take living at the shelter.
Their homeless situation is only one of many setbacks and challenges the family has faced. Two years ago, the children’s mother, Leigh Anne Horton, passed away from retinoblastoma, an eye cancer. Shortly after that, Horton discovered he had a serious cardiac condition; basically his heart functions at 10 percent capacity. He’s on a lot of medication and tires easily and could no longer work at Folks, where he was employed for more than 10 years as a waiter, cook and dishwasher.
“I was doing alright, until I lost my job,” said Horton, a soft spoken man who had moved to Atlanta with hopes of entering the music business. Horton found himself in the house with no utilities. When they made the decision to leave, they were assured their belongings would be looked after until they could retrieve them. But when Horton came back two months later, he found everything had been sold or given away, including pictures of the children’s mother.
“I pretty much was never in that position before, of being homeless or anything,” said Horton. His wife was estranged from her family, and he’s lost touch with his only immediate relative, his sister.
Horton is only one of many families in Rockdale and throughout the metro-Atlanta region that have been thrown into upheaval by the economic downturn or by medical calamities. There were about 200 students enrolled in Rockdale County Public Schools that classified as homeless in 2009, and its been estimated about 400 Rockdale residents are homeless or in transition.
In addition to his heart disease, Horton lost an eye to due to a detached retina when he was a child. He grew up in foster care and has lost touch with his sister, the only family member he knew. He and his wife met when they were teenagers at the Tennessee School for the Blind. His 16 year-old son, Jason, inherited his mother’s eye disease and suffered tumors so they made the painful decision to have his right eye removed. Their first daughter had passed away at age seven from the same condition.
“He's a very courageous man,” said Tom McPike, Rockdale County’s Manager of Therapeutic Recreation. McPike has gotten to know the family through Jason who plays on the Special Olympic basketball team. He’s been impressed with the family’s attitude and outlook despite so many obstacles.
“I’ve never been one of those people that stay down in a bad situation…I try to look at the bright side of things. It’s not always easy, but I have to focus on my boys now,” said Horton. He credits their mother for raising the children “to respect people and do the best you can.” Promising her they would get an education, he emphasizes study and schoolwork to Jason and his brothers, Nicholas, 12, and Eric, 11. Receiving her own student loan, daughter Stephanie is taking online courses and plans to earn a law degree.
Currently on disability, Horton is saving what he can and hopes to secure a real home for his sons in time for summer break, since there is little to do for the boys outside of school. As part of the federal McKinney-Vento Act, the boys still attend Rockdale schools. With so many upheavals, staying enrolled at their “school of origin” provides some stability for them in an ever-changing world.
“Actually, they’ve done pretty good,” said Horton, of his boys’ adjustment to living at the shelter. “They don’t want to be here but they try to deal with it the best they can. They wish their mother was still alive, of course.”
For the Woods family, medical difficulties have played a big role in upheaval and uncertainty in their lives as well.
On a good night, after the child support funds have come in, the Angela Woods and her “big babies” Herman, 18, Caleb, 15, and Courtney, 14, look like any other family going out to dinner at a nearby wing joint. They laugh and rib each other good naturedly. Even through the occasional mask of teen aloofness, they remain affectionate and not afraid to share a hug or lay their head on their mother’s shoulder.
Angela Woods suffers from sickle cell anemia, which prevents her from working a full time job and often sends her to the hospital. The last several years have been especially tumultuous, with deaths in the extended family, hospitalizations, and the family finding themselves the victims of scams and dragged down with the housing bubble burst. Through it all, Angela remains determined that her three children, Herman, 18, Caleb, 15, and Courtney, 14, receive an education.
“I worry about my children the most,” said the DeKalb native, recalling her own childhood having to move around. “I grew up like that, and I don’t want that for them.”
Part 2: Education
For the Woods family, one constant in the flux of their lives over the years as they’ve bounced from place to place and school system to school system, has been their mother’s emphasis on education.
Angela Woods, the glue and matriarch to her brood of three teenagers, suffers from sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease where the blood cells are shaped differently, tend to clump and carry less oxygen to the body. Throughout her life she has had to be hospitalized repeatedly, is tired out easily, is susceptible to serious diseases in times of stress.
The disease and its complications also often prevents her from holding a 9-5 job, although she admits she doesn’t know how she would afford her medical bills if she were not on Medicaid. Not being able to work as much as she would like has meant moving with relatives, living in questionable apartment situations, and moving whenever the family gets behind on bills after medical complications.
But the past couple years has been particularly tumultuous, with the deaths of Angela’s father and sister, and having to move from place to place in DeKalb, Fulton and finally Rockdale counties.
Since the beginning of the school year, they’ve been living in a clean but cramped motel room about 500 square feet, piled high with bags and stacks of all their worldly belongings. With four bodies inside, the term “elbow room” quickly takes on renewed meaning.
But though it might look tiny, Angela knows the motel room is preferable to being in limbo again.
“This is a crowed situation, but this is as stable as anything,” said the exhausted but upbeat mother. “We’ve got a full refrigerator. We can cook with a microwave. We’ve got an internet connection. We’ve got everything that we need here. I didn’t want to be anxious and jump and get an apartment and that be the wrong move – not knowing how I’m going to get my kids to school.”
For now, her kids are settled in schools in the Rockdale County Public School system, and Woods said the support offered by RCPS has been above what they’ve experienced in other school systems, such as help with getting immunizations and transportation to the registrar, bus transportation from their motel and allowing enrollment despite lacking certain documents.
RCPS reported having more than 100 students that classified as homeless, as of fall 2009. Those figures had peaked right after Hurricane Katrina, but now are approaching those record numbers again. And officials say the count is probably an underestimate, since many families are reluctant to identify themselves as homeless, or might not think of themselves as homeless, since they have roof over their heads.
What many families in transition don’t realize is that there are services and resources available to help give their children a stable school environment, said Laura Barnes, the system’s homeless liaison
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, first passed in 1986 but reauthorized and tightened up in the 1990s, students who have lost their homes have certain rights, including living in a motel, trailer park, campground, with relatives or friends, in foster care, or in shelters. Those rights include being able to stay with the school they were attending before they became homeless, even though they may be living outside of the district, receiving transportation to the school of origin, receiving a free lunch, and not being denied enrollment because of a lack of documents.
“The main goal of the law is to make sure education is stable for children,” explained April Fallon, director of community support for the Rockdale County Public School system.
“The continuity of school is sometimes all that children have,” added Barnes.
The school system received a grant last summer of about $124,000 over two years – about $84,000 of that from stimulus funds that are going to hire a case manager – to help provide extra resources and services for families in transition.
And just in time. Barnes and Fallon say the cases they’re seeing are often of families that are in limbo and fallen behind on bills, either because one or both parents lost their job.
“They’re trying so hard to hold on,” said Barnes. “They may pay this bill this month, that bill that month. But eventually, one of them is going to catch up with them.”
“By the time they call us or one of the agencies, it’s the dire hour and they say they have to be out of the house by tonight. And we’re scrambling,” added Fallon.
They also see older children who have lost their homes because they’ve been kicked out, or left, and are still going to school. The families and students that do become “homeless” also stay in that situation for longer than Barnes and Fallon used to see.
Facing these challenges at home and staying focused enough to finish their education can be difficult for students.
For a time in his sophomore year, Angela Woods’ oldest son, Herman, 18, considered dropping out of school altogether.
“‘If I can work, I can help my mom,” Woods recalled. “I told him, I don’t care what I’m going through. You’re my son; I’m supposed to take care of you. I don’t need you to take care of me. I appreciate the gesture. Education is more important. That’s how you can take care of me. By taking care of yourself.”
She struck a bargain with him; he would stay in school while they researched the options.
“By the time all that went on, he didn’t want to drop out anymore. I was so thankful when that year was up. He went back to junior year with a whole different mindset,” she said. Barnes described how Herman, at the beginning of this school year, with no car and no public transportation in Conyers, and Herman trekked across the city twice in an attempt to enroll himself and his younger brother and sister.
Woods beams as she brags about her children’s achievements, their enrollment in honors and gifted classes.
“When I was growing up, I actually went through the same thing. My mom had seven children. I remember going to three different schools in the seventh grade. I had an illness that slowed me down. I got a GED, but if I had a more stable environment, but I probably still could have graduated.” She is now taking college courses for business marketing, and has hope that the cycle will end with her children.
“If I don’t break it with me, I’m going to break it with my children. They’re going to put themselves in a position where they’re going to be able to have a stable home environment, just through their education.”
“There are solutions to the problem but no overnight solutions,” she added.
Part 3: Building a Safety Net
Recently, Rockdale is seeing the results of years of discussion and planning around helping homeless families come to fruition – and just in time.
Although numbers can be hard to determine, a report by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs found about 21,000 people across the state were homeless on a single night in January 2009 - about 20 percent more than in 2008 - and that about half of those did not have shelter. About half the people surveyed were also experiencing some type of medical or physical disability.
The DCA report also estimated about 41 people in Rockdale County on a single night in January 2009 were homeless, while the Rockdale County School System reported more than 100 enrolled students classified as homeless as of fall 2009. Rockdale Emergency Relief’s food pantry is operating at 300 percent capacity.
In the county, an exciting synergy between agencies, faith-based groups and secular groups, is taking place to take care of these families. Some of the programs coming together include Phoenix Pass, which will celebrate a dedication of its first phase of construction this Wednesday, April 14, the Family Promise Program, Habitat for Humanity in Rockdale, Rockdale Emergency Relief and recent developments and connections between the groups.
Strength in numbers
The conversation on how to help displaced families in Rockdale County began long before the economic downturn began pulling more and more into the ranks of the homeless.
Clair Cline, head of the Rockdale United Way, recalled those discussions, which began about eight years ago and reached across agency, government, and faith community lines. “Rockdale County is a proactive community,” she said. “The leadership said we want to be part of the Regional Commission on Homelessness. We want to make sure we’re proactive instead of reactive.”
For one thing, the leadership came to acknowledge that there were homeless residents in Rockdale at all. Ron Simpson, who was on the Rockdale United Way board at that time and is currently Phoenix Pass board chair, recalled his disbelief. “Homeless? I said ‘We don’t have anybody like that.’ “
Then he heard the story of a resident, a young stay-at-home mother of three young children whose husband had left her in Dallas, Tx., and who, upon coming to Conyers on a friend’s invitation, found the invitation rescinded, found herself with nowhere to stay.
“So here she is in town. I don’t know how much money she has. She and the kids sleep in the car. She got a job as a waitress at Waffle House. She put the kids in daycare. And all four of them got back in the car every night,” said Simpson. “It just blew my mind. And I could see how that could happen. “
They also realized that women and children made up the highest number of that population, as RER observed in its day to day operations running a food pantry and a housing retention assistance program which helps families stay in their homes.
“That’s when discussions started around ‘What can we do to address this in our community. ‘ And the parts of the puzzle started coming together,” said Cline.
A fortunate confluence of events brought several key elements together. “We’ve referred to it as a ‘God thing’ all along,” said Simpson, with a smile.
“We’re looking at building a safety net with all the support systems a family might need. We do not have one agency in Rockdale County that can address everything. We don’t expect to.” Said Cline. “In numbers, we build strength.”
The newest of these programs is a network of churches called Family Promise of NewRock.
This program, which would be an affiliate of a national program with more than 160 affiliates, would involve thirteen host churches that switch off hosting displaced families and would have a day center facility and the aid of social service agencies.
The four churches committed to participating are Epiphany Lutheran, Smyrna Presbyterian Church, Oasis of Hope Church of God, and St. Pius X Catholic Church. Nine more churches are currently needed before the program can get off the ground.
Participating churches provide shelter for one week per quarter to 14 guests. A network van would in the morning to shuttle the families to the day center, a base to search for employment and housing, shower, do laundry and from which the children depart for school. A director will assist in case management services. In the evening, the van transports them back to the host church where they have a family-style dinner. At the end of the week, a network truck would move the beds and luggage to the next church. Though moving every week isn’t ideal, it keeps the family together.
“Looking at family promise, it will address more than Phoenix Pass can, because it’s looking at a whole family,” pointed out Claire Cline. “A family might be grandparents with children, an aunt, uncle.”
The program also allows congregations to help and minister to displaced families in a very tangible way, said Nathan Hilkert, pastor of Epiphany Lutheran in Conyers, who had participated in another Family Promise network in Augusta
Family Promise and Phoenix Pass recently entered into discussions of allowing families in the Family Promise program to use the yet-to-be-built community center at Phoenix Pass as their day center.
“It would be complimentary for both the Phoenix Pass Transitional Housing Program and for the Family Promise NewRock Day Center operations and really seems to present a unique and ideal opportunity for expansion of services by leveraging resources together,” said Roessler.
For more information on Family Promise of NewRock, go to ww.familypromiseofnewrock.org or www.familypromise.org for information on the national program. You can also contact Tim Carey at 678-607-1589. Donations may be sent to P.O. Box P.O. Box 81551, Conyers, GA 30013.
Rockdale Emergency Relief had long provided one-time housing retention assistance – a sort of homelessness prevention program. But if families had already lost their homes or were about to be evicted onto the street, there were no options, other than motels, that RER could offer them. As RER began looking at possibly setting up a temporary housing facility, they quickly realized it was too much to run both that and the day-to-day operations of their current programs. So they began looking for a partner and found one in First Baptist Church of Conyers.
“It was a united effort that the Lord blessed and helped us take up the work they had done,” said Howard Greer, former pastor and associate pastor with First Baptist who had helped spearhead the efforts. A new, separate entity was formed with members from both RER and First Baptist and outside community members.
Around the same time, Jeff Beech and a handful of community members were looking at unmet needs in the community and developing the idea of the Light House village – a faith-based campus of independent service agencies, and one of them ended up being Phoenix Pass.
The concept that evolved for Phoenix Pass became much more than just a shelter for families. The program will require a commitment from mothers to attend training and classes, and will also give them opportunities to refine job seeking skills, interview skills, budgeting classes and computer classes. Families can stay at Phoenix Pass for up to two years, or can stay as little time as they need to get back on their feet.
“When someone has experienced circumstances, whether it’s a traumatic life event that causes them to experience homelessness, often times they need the opportunity to regroup. That regrouping includes some reeducation or the opportunity to learn how to do some things differently,” explained RER Executive Director Ashley Roessler.
“We’re talking about individuals that have the opportunity to be successful. But they can’t realize that if they don’t have the opportunity to stabilize.”
Phoenix Pass, which broke ground on construction last year, will dedicate the first phase of its building construction – and eight-unit apartment building and an accompanying community rooms in the shape of a lighthouse. Other phases will include another eight-unit apartment building, to be constructed as funds are raised.
About $300,000 was raised as the project got going, from a combination of grants, church donations and individual donations, about $250,000 has been spent so far in the first phase. Many companies also came forward to donate materials and services within the last six months, including bedding and electric appliances.
“When we finish the apartments next week, we will have spent $36 per square foot… and the buildings will be debt free because of the generosity of our community and donations around the nation,” said Phoenix Pass and RER board member Maury Wilson.
The operating costs are estimated to be about $114,000 per year for the first phase. Phoenix Pass is asking individuals, churches, civic organizations and businesses to consider supporting this project by either making a one-time donation toward operating expenses or by sponsoring an individual apartment unit.
In a new development, Phoenix Pass now has a written understanding with Habitat for Humanity of Rockdale. Upon graduation, Phoenix Pass residents may now be eligible to purchase a Habitat Home built in one of Habitat’s 30 lots in Conyers.
Wilson and Simpson said they had worried what the residents would do once they graduated and were faced with the daunting rental market. But now, residents will have the chance to buy, at very reasonable rates, their own home and become stable, productive members of the community.
For more information on Phoenix Pass, call 770-760-1020.
Habitat for Humanity
Bonny Bryant, Rockdale’s Habitat for Humanity new president, is excited by the potential with their Olde Town Village 30-lot development. Awaiting final plat approval, they hope to break ground on the first home in the coming month and the second home shortly after that. Though their first homeowner has already been selected, Habitat hopes to use Phoenix Pass to help screen and select homeowners in the future.
Requirements for Habitat homeowners are a fair credit history, employment, $1,000 down payment, 300 hours of sweat equity and they must have resided in Rockdale County at least one year.
They already have street signs, lights and curbs in place and various groups such as Heritage’s ROTC and Haven Fellowship have put in many hours clearing the land.
Bryant would like to spread the word about Habitat’s store which is located at 1117 West Ave., next to the Open Campus. They have a good selection of home items, some new, and they will also pick up donated item. The initial plan was for the store to generate the cost of half a home per year, and they doubled that last year. The Habitat store is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Their number is (770)785-7576.
Lisa Hetzel contributed to this story.