ROSWELL, Ga. — On a near-freezing night in late-January, a small group of volunteers and one Roswell Police Officer found a group of three men outside the Shell gas station off Holcomb Bridge Road.
The men, surrounded by a few bags filled with all of their worldly belongings, were but a portion of the 39 people located that night during the annual Point in Time Homeless Count.
“I’m just trying to not die,” said Guillermo Ammon, 36. “I go to jail just to live a few more months. It’s really sad how many homeless people are out there. It’s out of control.”
Just three years ago, Ammon said he had a steady, well-paying job. But he began struggling with drugs and alcohol and ultimately faced felony charges and was put on probation. When he landed in Roswell, life didn’t get any easier.
After stealing a tent from Walmart because he “had no other option,” he fell and hit his head twice during a recent cold spell. After he was released from the hospital, he was so frustrated with being homeless he went to a Waffle House and begged them to call the cops on him. He tried a number of ways to get arrested, including drinking in front of the police and asking if he had a warrant out for him, but the cops didn’t budge.
Eventually, the officers had to take him to a psychiatric hospital after he threatened suicide. He stayed there for six days before he was out on the street again.
“You shouldn’t be fighting that hard for basic needs,” he said. “They gave me about 30 numbers to call for homeless shelters. I called almost all and couldn’t get in anywhere. I had already talked to half of them.”
Back on the streets, Ammon tries often to get employment. He walks to Home Depot to see if he can get a job working day labor.
This is often successful until his bad luck comes into play. Recently, he was in the parking lot walking to the store when he was struck by a pickup truck.
The driver paid him $350 and Ammon took it to a Super 8 hotel where he stayed for four nights. When his money ran out, he was homeless again and ended up at the Shell gas station, planning to stay in a nearby shed for the foreseeable future.
This story is not uncommon for Metro Atlanta’s homeless.
Where to go on a cold night
During the annual count, Roswell Police Officer Samuel Wolfson said police will often find the majority of the people sleeping in their cars. Many have jobs, but can’t afford to live in the area.
While the police can’t force anyone to go anywhere, local businesses sometimes allow the homeless to come inside and warm up, especially when nighttime temperatures drop below freezing.
“On a colder night, there are fewer (homeless people) out,” Wolfson said. “They get to their spots and burrow in early like 5 p.m. before the sun sets because it’s safe and warmer. They go through the dumpster to find warm things like cardboard. Public restrooms are also used because they’re mostly heated and unlocked at night. But some of those are starting to get locked overnight due to getting vandalized.”
While Wolfson keeps up with the local homeless population, he did not know the three men his group found. Other participating law enforcement faced similar situations that night, with one officer only recognizing one of the 10 homeless people his group found.
Most of the 39 homeless people counted that night were males between 21 and 60-years-old, according to North Fulton Community Charities Executive Director Barbara Duffy.
The count is mandated nationally through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of their homeless services program.
“Unsheltered homeless people are an important subpopulation of homeless persons and their characteristics and needs must be accommodated within any strategy to reduce homelessness,” the department said in a guide for counting unsheltered people. “Collecting good baseline data about this subpopulation is essential to understanding the causes of homelessness and to designing effective responses, and can be used as a basis for comparison in future years.”
By completing the count, groups like NFCC receive funding, which the organization uses to hire a fulltime social worker dedicated to the homeless.
To coordinate funding, the Fulton County Homeless Continuum of Care was created. Because the county is so vast, the counts and care are split between north and south with NFCC as the base site for the northern portion of the county. The City of Atlanta has its own program.
This year, the 26 volunteers gathered at NFCC ventured out into the dark and cold side streets, alleyways and behind buildings in Roswell, Alpharetta, Milton, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.
The volunteers included five police officers from Alpharetta and Roswell, along with a few formerly homeless individuals who provided some idea of where the homeless typically are located, so they led most groups.
An undercounted population
This year’s count of 39 found was “disappointing,” Duffy said, but she added that could be due to the cold weather, because some might have been in bars or gas stations warming up.
“We know it’s an undercount because we are seeing a significant number in regular business,” Duffy said. “We did 45 hotel stays in January. Part of that is it was cold and we were more likely to get folks housed if we knew they didn’t have a place. It is a high number for us to spring for a hotel because it’s not a good solution. It only buys a few days and it doesn’t solve anything other than getting them out of the cold.”
For 2017, 494 households, made up of 757 people and 198 kids, visited North Fulton Community Charities for some form of assistance.
Of that, 12 percent of the total number of households NFCC interacted with were homeless.
In 2016, the homeless represented about 10 percent of the households who came to NFCC for help. In 2015, that number was 7 percent, so it’s climbing, Duffy said.
“We aren’t unique with the big undercount,” Duffy said. “Everybody probably feels the same. If we were to count when the weather was nice, we might see more people out and about. But would the passion that goes with worrying about this population be there if it’s 70 degrees? This is when it’s most important that folks are served, when it’s cold.”
The federal government is moving away from funding shelters, she said, because they believe it’s better to put someone into long-term housing immediately.
She thinks that is risky because many of these people often aren’t financially able to maintain that situation.
“Many folks who’ve become homeless have so many issues, so there needs to be this in-between step where they get temporary housing and the services they get with it, then move slowly toward independence,” she said.
How to address the issue
The North Fulton Poverty Task Force, a group created primarily to lessen homelessness, is working on a variety of ways to combat the problem. It suggests an immediate housing center that would include a comprehensive assessment and referrals to local housing. If there weren’t any current referrals, the homeless could sleep in the center that night until a placement can be arranged.
The shelter center is currently in the works, she said, while they’re deciding who should take that on — a business or group already working with the homeless, or something new entirely.
For the center to be successful at all, she said the community needs to be willing to accept it, an issue often encountered in North Fulton.
First, they need to be knowledgeable about the need, she said.
“It’s really easy to live in North Fulton and not have any concept of the scope of the homelessness in our own community,” Duffy said. “We have been using our efforts to share that information with those who will listen and building support. We anticipate there could be some folks who agree with the concept that it’s needed but ‘I don’t want it in my community or close to here.’ Any documentation, like the count, that we can put together will build the support. We need all of our community together.”