250 students affected

Homelessness ‘vicious cycle that’s going to continue’

by Sarah Fay Campbell

The economy has bounced back from the lows of a few years ago. The housing market is healthy, and the jobless rate has improved.

But, for some of Coweta’s poorest, things haven’t improved.

“The people that we serve – the economy is not better for them,” said Derenda Rowe, executive director of One Roof Outreach. “Even if you are able to get a job that pays $7.25 an hour, you can’t make it on $7.25, and affordable housing is hard to come by in our community."

As of last week, there are 250 children in the Coweta County School System who are considered homeless, according to Rowe.

The homeless designation doesn’t necessarily mean they are living on the streets. Rather, the children don’t have an address of their own. “They could be on someone’s floor, moving from one relative’s house this week to another relative’s house next week,” Rowe said. Or, “they could be in a structure that is not suitable. They could be in a car.”

“Many of the children are really distressed because they’re going from place to place to place. They don’t have a room of their own anymore. They don’t have their own things anymore,” Rowe added.

Rowe has received calls from families living in their cars or in a park. She’s been working with local homeless families for years, but “that is a new one. I have not had people say they are in a park somewhere,” she said.

“I had a family that was in the woods. But, right now, they are in the motel until dad gets his first paycheck,” Rowe said. “They will be able to take care of themselves in the motel, hopefully, from his paycheck.”

As of last week, One Roof was putting up 20 people at a local extended stay motel – in seven rooms. The waiting list for emergency housing includes 19 families, eight single people and two couples for a total of 71 people. Some are living in the cars, some are camping in the woods, some are “couch surfing” with various friends.

Of those in the motel and on the waiting list “there are only about three of them that I consider maybe chronically homeless,” Rowe said. “The rest have had something happen to them in the last few months."

Last year, One Roof helped house 100 “situations.” This year, they’ve already housed 75.

The waiting list is a new thing. In the past, “pretty much anybody who was homeless, we put them in a motel room,” she said.

“When people come in, if we cannot house them, we try to find out what we can do to make them as comfortable as possible. Can we give them food? Can we give them blankets and pillows? If they are sleeping in their car, what can we do to make them more comfortable?” They’ll refer them to resources to help with jobs, and to other agencies that can help. Maybe they help find bicycles to get to a job.

When someone is housed in the motel, they have to check in with Rowe each week and report what they have been doing to become self-sufficient.

“Anytime people are not doing what we ask them to do … we are quick to let them know we can no longer help them,” Rowe said. “We want to help people who are trying to help themselves, and we give them goals, things that they need to take care of, and we expect that. It is sad when we have to tell somebody that we can no longer help, but there is a limit.”

Hopefully, by that time, if they aren’t able to get a job, the people are able to get help from family or friends. “It is always such a blessing when a friend steps up and says somebody can come and stay with them for a while. But that doesn’t happen for everybody,” Rowe said.

Once people get into a homelessness situation "the hope for them is very slim,” Rowe said. “There are just not a lot of resources, as far as their next steps.”

“There are people who come to us who have made very bad choices. But there are also people that have had circumstances happen to them: accidents, health problems, divorce,” she said.

Affordable housing options in Coweta are very limited. Subsidized apartments in the $400 and under range have very long waiting lists, often six months to a year or more.

It’s doubtful that the stock of affordable housing will ever grow, or that Coweta will get a homeless shelter.

“The city and the county evidently don’t want things,” Rowe said.

Over the years, several groups have popped up and have talked about homeless shelters and homeless task forces. They have met and talked, but “it basically has just been talking with no action,” Rowe said.

“We need someone who has the heart to push through something that would work,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have a shelter.”

Even with a shelter, “if we don’t have any place to transition them to, we’re just kind of stuck with the same situation. It’s just a vicious cycle that is going to continue,” Rowe said.

There are many people living in Coweta motels because they can’t find anything else. “They have no other choices. They can’t get together enough money or can’t find housing in our community,” Rowe said.

“I run into people and they say, ‘What do you mean children are homeless?’ They don’t have a clue,” Rowe said. “I’m just still amazed that people don’t know that there are homeless people in Coweta. The people that are homeless that we are dealing with are not the ones that you see on the side of the road,” she said. “They are somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother."

One Roof has been in existence for seven years and, after all that time, “I still don’t have an answer as to what to do for the people that come before us,” Rowe said.

“I’m really puzzled about what is going on right now and why there are so many people who are homeless,” Rowe said.

Rowe shares lists of resources with those who need help. “We have a lot of lists that we give out,” Rowe said. “With the homeless clients we deal with, there are a lot of layers to what they need. We have to start with the very basic things.”

It’s not unusual for people to show up without any ID. They can’t get public assistance or housing without one.

Many clients don’t have job skills. “So we try to steer them toward the GED program” and the Goodwill Career Center, Rowe said. Transportation is also a major issue.

How can Cowetans help? Donations are always needed, both of money and of items that can help homeless families, including gently used pillows and blankets, toiletries and personal care items, laundry soap, new socks and underwear, and gently used shoes. Homeless people go through shoes quickly because they often have to walk everywhere they go, Rowe said.

You can also donate unwanted items to One Roof’s thrift store, which helps fund the outreach. If you have friends or family members who need help, you can help them. Sometimes just a few days can make a difference.

Rowe also needs volunteers. She’d love to have someone with a social services background, such as a retiree, who could help work with the clients.

She needs people who can work as a cashier in the thrift store, and volunteers for heavy lifting. “I need somebody who would be committed to helping, who would come and do volunteering on a regular basis, that would find their niche,” she said.

For more information on One Roof, visit www.OneRoofOutreach.org, the organization’s Facebook page, or call 770-683-7705. The outreach is located at 320 Temple Ave. on Newnan's west side.

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