MARIETTA — On any given night, hundreds of people in Cobb are without shelter, and thousands more face untenable or dangerous living situations. Advocates for the homeless say a dearth of affordable housing, spotty public transportation and a rise in suburban poverty are pushing individuals and families onto the streets, despite a recovering economy.
At his worst, Robert Jordan, 52, was living on the streets, addicted to crack and heroin. Today, he is the director of the men’s program at The Extension, one of a handful of local nonprofits that serve the homeless in Cobb.
In 2004, Jordan’s wife of 25 years died. After a successful decade in the Navy, Jordan found himself on his own, caring for the youngest of his four daughters, then 16.
“I didn’t handle it well,” Jordan recalled. “I used alcohol and drugs to cope.”
Jordan quickly slid into addiction; he could no longer care for his daughter and he lost his home. He spent most of the years between 2004 and 2008 sleeping in his car, on the floor of abandoned apartments, hotel rooms and sometimes in shelters. Petty crime and possession landed him in Cobb County jail several times.
“For the most part, I was homeless and hungry,” Jordan said.
He attributes his breakdown to grief, but also to his own lack of life skills.
“I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook, all that was done by my wife,” Jordan said.
The turning point came when he was accused of robbing a drug dealer.
“My life was threatened,” he said. “I knew that what I was living was not who I was.”
Despite falling off the wagon once, briefly, Jordan said that thanks to the support he received at The Extension, he was able to get his life back on track. He went back to school to become a counselor for addiction and anger management. He interned with The Extension, which led to a job and, after five years, a promotion.
Jordan knows firsthand the difficulty of rebuilding a life from scratch. People living on the streets, whether they struggle with substance abuse or not, generally lack transportation, child care, employment and family support. Many shelters give those seeking refuge just a few weeks to find a job, and Jordan said the stress of that can drive those who do use drugs and alcohol to use even more.
“Our jails are filling up with people who have coping and life skills issues — they are not criminals,” said Jordan.
The Extension, which specializes in addiction, processes about 200 individuals a year. In addition to a 12-step residential treatment program that lasts a little less than a year on average, it also opens as an emergency shelter on the coldest nights of the year.
The Extension is one of eight organizations that receive more than $2 million a year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development each year to address homelessness in Cobb. Programs range from emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing, some of which are reserved for people with disabilities, veterans, families or victims of domestic violence. Additionally, most offer support services, whether it be job placement or help filing a protective order against an abusive partner or parent.
Together, these organizations and their supporters form the Cobb Continuum of Care, a consortium of organizations working to end homelessness.
For many, Jordan’s story fits the image they may have of the homeless — single men with substance abuse problems. But he and others say the homeless population, and those threatened with homelessness, are a far more diverse group. Some struggle with mental illness or addiction, while others lost their jobs or are trapped in abusive relationships. Many are veterans who have failed to transition smoothly into civilian life.
One of the issues with quantifying the homelessness in Cobb is that different organizations use different standards and definitions of “homeless.” A “point in time” count in January 2015 identified 415 people as being homeless as defined by HUD, which means living either on the street or in Cobb shelters. The Cobb and Marietta School systems, however, have identified nearly 2,200 homeless students.
Children are particularly vulnerable to upheavals in their caregivers’ lives. Over a 70-day period earlier this year, MUST Ministries has had to turn away 584 people, including 171 children, from its emergency shelter because it was full. MUST also reported a marked increase in the percentage of homeless children under 18.
“What does the face of homelessness look like? People think it’s the person living under a bridge, and that’s a piece of it, but that’s not all of it,” said Holly Tuchman, executive director of the YWCA, which helps rehouse victims of domestic violence. “You have people who are living in cars who go to work every day.”
Tuchman said she believes most estimates of the homeless population are low, and do not take into account the working poor, who may be one paycheck away from homelessness.
“We live in such an affluent county that a lot of people just don’t know it’s an issue,” said Tuchman, who added that many people are still “catching up” from the blow dealt by the recession. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, Metro Atlanta’s suburban poverty rate increased 7.1 percent between 2000 and 2013, the largest jump among the nation’s 25 most populous metro areas.
Tuchman said she would like to see more funds channeled toward preventing homelessness through rent and mortgage assistance, as well as a more concerted effort to increase the affordable housing stock and improve public transportation. Cobb Community Transit is working toward expanding routes, but does not run throughout the county.
“It all goes back to affordable housing … you need emergency shelters to get them off the street, but then is there an affordable place for them to live with their family?” Tuchman said.
The Continuum of Care recently entered talks with the Atlanta Real Estate Collaborative to participate in its Open Doors program, which seeks to connect homeless individuals and families with property managers who are willing to be flexible on things such as credit scores, which can prevent someone from signing a lease. The potential partnership with Open Doors could help local nonprofits adjust to a new HUD directive that emphasizes “rapid rehousing,” or setting the client up in a rental under their own name.
Jeri Barr, CEO at the Center for Family Resources, echoed Tuchman’s reading on the importance of affordable housing. She called for more mixed-income development, but added that pressing for public policy changes, such as inclusive zoning, was “a tough nut to crack.”
“If we don’t have mixed-income housing, who’s going to be the housekeeper, the maintenance man, the person who serves our food?” she said. “If we don’t have mixed-income housing and transportation, those are major issues for all of us.”
♦ MUST Ministries: Emergency shelter; permanent supportive housing, including veterans; short-term rental and utility assistance
♦ Cobb Community Services Board: Permanent supportive housing
♦ Zion Keepers: Permanent supportive housing for veterans
♦ Marietta Housing Authority: Permanent supportive housing
♦ The Center for Family Resources: Short-term shelter, transitional housing and rapid re-housing for families
♦ The Extension: Emergency shelter sometimes; transitional housing/drug treatment
♦ YWCA: Emergency domestic violence shelter; transitional/rapid re-housing for victims of domestic violence