Homeless in suburbs hidden from sight

Unknown numbers living on edge



NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Recently, the Internet has swarmed over an amazing photo – a New York police officer kneeling beside a grizzled homeless man, giving him his boots.

The image warmed people’s hearts, that, yes, there is still good out there; but there is also crippling poverty and homelessness.

And that problem is not restricted to large cities like New York. Even the quiet suburbs of North Fulton and Forsyth counties have their share.

Tara McIver, a 41-year-old mother of two, was nearing the end of her rope two years ago. She was living in homeless shelters in Atlanta and battling an alcohol dependency. Her daughter and son were living with family and friends. Her life was a mess.

“My life took a downward spiral,” McIver said. “I had no life. Alcohol was my life.”

While McIver is in many ways a common story of homelessness, even healthy, well-off people can end up on the streets. Missing one rent payment can mean losing your home. Having too many sick days can cause you to be fired. Having troublesome or special needs children can give single mothers the choice between their work or their child.

Despite growing optimism about the economy, homelessness is still a problem in the metro area, including North Fulton.

“We’re certainly no better than last year,” said Christy Merritt, director of programs for the Roswell-based Drake House, a shelter for mothers and their children. “Employment continues to be a huge obstacle for our families. There’s not enough to meet the needs of our families. Most of our women are working part-time and trying to keep together several part-time jobs.”

More jobs need to offer full-time work, she said, instead of 25-30 hours a week part-time.

And it’s not just finding a job; sometimes it is also a problem keeping one. Jobs that are hiring tend to involve a lot of evening and weekend work, Merritt said, however most childcare only takes children during the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day.

“That’s a huge disconnect for our children,” she said. “In order for [single parents] to work, they need daycare for their children.”

Homelessness a hidden problem

In North Fulton, residents are not often likely to see many “bums” along the streets asking for handouts or pushing shopping carts. While there have been several in the past, their numbers have dropped significantly in recent years, say local police officials.

“I don’t know where everybody went,” said Alpharetta Police Officer Terry Joyner. “They just aren’t around like they used to be.”

Joyner has kept tallies on the Alpharetta homeless for several years. He made it a point to ensure they not only are not causing trouble, but also staying safe.

There used to be a homeless tent camp with several residents living there. In recent years, this camp has dwindled from nearly 10 residents to only one.

“It’s not a whole lot of trouble to pack up and move,” he said.

Similarly, the other North Fulton and south Forsyth County officials said there were little to no problems with homeless.

“We haven’t had any case of homelessness in quite a while,” said Sgt. Bryan Zimbardi with the Cumming Police Department.

There used to be a tent city on the outskirts of the city several years ago with a half-dozen residents. They moved along when they were asked to leave.

However, these homeless are the blatant ones. Most live in vacant homes or shelters. Living on sofas or in one’s car is often an example of local homelessness given by the organizations that help the homeless.

“If people are living in their cars, you just don’t see it,” Merritt said.

McIver didn’t even have that option. When she wasn’t staying with friends or family members, she was in shelters downtown.

“A lot of people in the shelters were absolutely homeless,” she said. “They had nowhere else to go.”

However, she said there were others for whom homelessness was a choice.

“They enjoy pushing their carts around and collecting junk,” she said. “’Wow,’ I said. It was real. Really eye opening. I needed to get it together because I didn’t want to be like those people.”

McIver was lucky, eventually finding help through programs like the Drake House, programs that offer emergency aid and shelter to those struggling with life’s demands.

She sobered up, got a job and is looking at getting a car for work.

“They made a real difference in my life,” McIver said. “I won’t take another drink again. I have two reasons right here. My little boy and teenage daughter.”

This is the first in a two-part series on homelessness in the Northside. Look for part two next week.

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