NORTH FULTON, GA. - “Mary” lives in Roswell with her three children, where she works as an office manager. Originally from Ohio, Mary left shortly after high school to come to Atlanta, where her then-husband was attending university. While she currently lives in a Habitat For Humanity home, her family was homeless just a few years ago.
In 2005, she and her young children – ages 3, 5 and 9 – were living in an apartment in Roswell. Every morning, Mary would take her children to either school or daycare, then would head off to work. However, even though she worked a full-time job, it just wasn't enough to make ends meet.
“I got caught up with the childcare bills, rent – those were the two most stressful bills,” Mary said. “I just couldn't get caught up.”
After holding out for a few months on the edge of disaster, Mary finally got her eviction notice. And just like that, she was homeless.
“I don't think anyone was as shocked as me that you can be a full-time worker and be homeless,” she said. “I thought I had everything together trying to make things work.”
Mary and her children had to live with friends in Norcross or – sometimes – sleep in their car. For three months they either slept on couches or car seats while Mary tried to get her family back on their feet.
“You feel ashamed,” she said. “I was evicted and now need all this help.”
Even though she knew she needed a lot of help, the shame of being homeless stopped her from contacting family or even telling her boss.
According to Rose Burton, executive director of Homestretch, an organization that provides shelter to families that have fallen on hard times, most of those who are homeless, like Mary, in North Fulton are considered the “hidden homeless.”
They are not the shopping cart-pushing hobo, panhandler or person sleeping in a cardboard box; instead they stay in their car or room with friends, so they often have roofs over their heads.
“It's really tough,” Burton said. “Especially when you get into the holidays. It's a time for families and when you have extra folks it create extra tension.”
This is especially difficult for families with children, who Burton said make up one of the largest demographic of homeless.
“It's a meaningful number,” she said. “A greater percentage [of homelessness] is single moms with children.”
For Mary, her daughter's school eventually caught on to the family's problems and they suggested Homestretch. There, Mary was given temporary housing for her family as well as lessons on financial and life skills. It culminated in her family moving into a Habitat house.
“I never thought that I would have that much in common with someone who's homeless,” she said.
Following a narrow path through the woods along Foe Killer Creek in Alpharetta, near North Point Mall, you come across evidence that people are living there – cans, bottles, clothing and the general debris of human occupancy can be found everywhere. It's here that several people call home. They are North Fulton's homeless.
In previous years, Alpharetta Officer Terry Joyner has kept contact with the many homeless people who lived throughout his city in camps or tent cities. This year, however, he said most have moved on.
“There are still some here,” he said.
Joyner said most were not the stereotypical down-on-his-luck person, but instead had stable jobs and only chose to live in a tent in the woods.
“This was a lifestyle choice,” he said. “A lot of them had jobs and they chose to live out there.”
There used to be a collection of tents in the woods. At its height last year, there were as many as a dozen tents, although not all were occupied.
Now, the “tent city” has moved to a different area and, instead of tents, there are small plywood shelters up on cement blocks. According to Jeremy Golem, a man who was living there, these shelters were built by a local church.
Homeless for several years now, Golem said there were about three people living in the clearing, although due to the transient nature of homelessness, that number varies. People come and go.
In North Fulton, Golem, who has on-again-off-again work, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to homelessness.
Changing demographics of homelessness
Burton said that homelessness is still a problem in North Fulton, but it is often under the radar. And the economic slump of the past few years has changed the demographics of families she deals with.
“Originally we had clients that had ... minimum wage salaries,” she said. “We're starting to see that homelessness is affecting people not just at the lowest income levels. Now we're seeing college educations and entry-level management.”
She said the numbers of people in the area who can count as homeless has been steadily increasing in the past few years. The metro Atlanta area had more than 20,000 home foreclosures last year alone, which she said will only add to the problem.
“We've been at capacity all year long,” she said. “Homestretch has people waiting.”
Congregations give helping hand
To help with the problem, several charity groups have formed, including the Drake House, a Roswell-based nonprofit care center that houses homeless women and their children and helps them become self-sufficient. They help about 50 North Fulton families each year.
Religious congregations, which have traditionally been helpful in providing food, clothing and other necessities, are also taking a more active role.
Beyond such acts of charity as Golem's plywood home in the woods, several churches and synagogues have recently banded together to offer shelter and help to homeless families.
Called “Family Promise,” about a dozen religious congregations of several faiths to house a family for several weeks, offering them free food and shelter while they get back on their feet. The children still go to school, the parents still go to work or look for jobs, but they have the benefit of not worrying about bills for at least a little while.
Sometimes that's all they need to get back on their feet, said Rabbi Bradley Levenberg of Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs.
“Homelessness is a growing problem in North Fulton and North Atlanta,” Levenberg said. “Figures were released that demonstrate that 294 children in Fulton County Public Schools were classified as homeless, a number that has grown with the start of the 2011/2012 school year. Combine that with the figures from The Drake House, where more than 40 percent of their clientele list their last address as Sandy Springs, and one can see that homeless is, in fact, a problem in our community.”