Temporary shelter for the homeless opens in greater Decatur as freezing temps loomA man sleeping on the sidewalk in Atlanta. File obtained via Wikimedia Commons
By Cathi Harris, contributor
With temperatures expected to drop into the teens late this weekend, a group of advocates for the homeless are mobilizing to get emergency assistance to as many people as possible.
A Home for Everyone in DeKalb, a volunteer interfaith initiative working to address homelessness in the county, has opened a new temporary warming shelter at a church just south of the city and hopes to open at least one more by the end of the month.
“We haven’t posted a notice, yet, because we wait to see what the weather will be,” says coordinator Shelly Fine, a Decatur licensed professional counselor who is one of the volunteers coordinating the effort. “It has to be 35 degrees or lower at some time during the night in order for us to open.”
The shelter space is donated by a local church, which agreed to open its doors on freezing nights. Volunteers provide an evening meal and breakfast the next morning. Some stay overnight in the event any of the guests need assistance. When the forecast predicts cold weather, Fine distributes a flyer to area social service agencies announcing the details, and posts it at the Decatur MARTA station, the Threshold Ministry at Decatur Presbyterian, and the Decatur library branch to let people know.
“When we first opened earlier in the month, the word spread fast and within three days we were filled to capacity – which is 20 because of fire codes,” Fine says. “Wednesday we had to turn at least 10 people away.”
On designated nights, the group’s bus picks up people needing shelter in front of Sycamore House, a homeless service ministry across Sycamore Street from the Decatur branch of the DeKalb County Library. Guests are returned to that location the next morning.
How you can help:
Here are some opportunities to help address the problem of homelessness in DeKalb County.
The HUB Christian Church Center – collects donations of toiletries, blankets, nonperishable food, chemical hand warmers, and gift cards to distribute to people who are homeless. Donations can be sent to Lifeway Christian Bookstore, 441 Cleveland Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30315 The HUB Center. This Saturday, Jan. 19, volunteers are needed to collect and sort donations of supplies. You can also drop off donations at the store. More information is available here.
A Home for Everyone in DeKalb – needs volunteers and donations of meals for nights the emergency shelter is open. They are also looking for another van and driver. Financial contributions can be made via their fiscal agent, Compassionate Atlanta, Inc. Contact Shelly Fine at firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer or for more information.
Decatur Cooperative Ministry – operates an emergency night shelter for families with children and provides some hotel/motel vouchers and short-term rental, utility, and mortgage assistance. You can learn more about donation and volunteer needs at www.decaturcooperativeministry.org.
Threshold Ministry – provides shelter referrals, MARTA cards for medical appointments or job interviews, referrals for rent or utility assistance and other services. You can learn more about volunteer needs at http://www.dpchurch.org/ministry/threshold-ministry/.
Emergency shelter space is scarce in the county, says Ellen Gallow, coordinator of the Threshold Ministry at Decatur First Presbyterian. Threshold, which operates Sycamore House, provides referrals for housing, employment, transportation and utility assistance.
“We refer guests to shelters all the time,” Gallow says. “But most of these are in downtown Atlanta. Shelter options are very limited in DeKalb.”
The new shelter is one of only two that are approved by the county fire marshall to serve as emergency overnight cold-weather shelters, according to county records. The other is also a church facility in Tucker.
Many people in DeKalb, including county leadership, are in denial about the extent of homelessness here, says William Francis, a local pastor and housing advocate who is working with A House for Everyone to establish the new shelter and others. Francis has recently been involved in efforts to urge the City of Atlanta to open more of its emergency warming shelters, but also sees a great need in DeKalb.
“People think there are not homeless people here, but I can take them out to Panola, out to Glenwood, and also Buford Highway, and you can find a lot of people if you know where to look,” Francis says.
According to the state Department of Community Affairs, there were 460 homeless people in DeKalb County in 2017, the date of the most recent count. But advocates say those numbers frequently underestimate the true number of unsheltered persons.
Francis frequently makes the rounds of different areas of abandoned and distressed properties to distribute food, blankets, hand warmers and hygiene kits. Because people see him often, he has built up a trust among these communities, whose members are often afraid of law enforcement or other government officials.
“I pulled up to an old Pizza Hut [building] with some food and the guy I was talking to asked if we had enough for the rest of the people – turns out there were like 40 people there,” he said.
Although he has been focused on downtown Atlanta, he thinks more efforts are needed in DeKalb and other outlying areas.
This Sunday, he is holding a community town hall discussion, in place of normal church services, at 10 a.m. at The HUB Christian Church, which meets in the Regal 24 Theaters, 3265 Northeast Expressway.
“We are going to get together some faith leaders and policy leaders and see what we can do on a grassroots level,” Francis says. “I have spent so much time talking to [government] leaders, without much movement. We’re going to leave that alone for awhile and see what we can get done ourselves.”
He hopes that places of worship, local businesses and others with potential space available may consider becoming a cold-weather shelter. Even if they can’t support a traditional homeless shelter, just providing a space to get out of the cold on freezing nights would be life-saving for many people and not require as large a commitment.
He is also organizing volunteers to gather on Saturday morning at 10 a.m. at Lifeway Christian Bookstore, 441 Cleveland Avenue in Atlanta, to sort and distribute donated supplies for people who are homeless.
This winter, four unsheltered people are already known to have died from the cold in metro Atlanta and Francis and others fear more could follow.
“It is supposed to get down to 17 on Sunday and anytime that happens I get very nervous,” he says. “I am hoping that we can get people together on Sunday and come away with some kind of action plan.”