Leaders in Gwinnett County identified homelessness last year as one of the top issues facing its community, and while there may have been shelters before, the county lacked a place that provided wraparound services to address homeless individuals.

And the issue wasn’t just being without a home. What were the issues that led to a person’s homelessness? The county needed a place that could give beds to families in need, and also give them a place for medical treatment, a place to treat mental health and substance abuse problems and give them a place to apply for jobs.

The county didn’t want to just apply a Band-Aid to the issue. They wanted to address the systemic problem.

“We’ve got literally 1,000 [nonprofit] organizations in Gwinnett County, and we are, ‘program rich and system poor,’ as I say,” said Dan Kaufman, president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. “How do we get the most out of all the great things that the people are doing? We found that the way was to integrate and synchronize.”

The solution was the HomeFirst Gwinnett Initiative, a collaborative partnership formed between United Way of Greater Atlanta, Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and The Primerica Foundation. HomeFirst will be an assessment center in a building attached to a Norcross-area church that provides wraparound services for people in need.

The facility is all about providing “respite from homelessness” in a relaxing facility while treating everyone with “respect and dignity,” says Matt Elder, director of HomeFirst Gwinnett.

HomeFirst Gwinnett opened its doors March 15 to give local and state officials, business leaders and community stakeholders a tour of the facility. It was a time to see what work had been done and possibly envision what the building could turn into one day.

The Gwinnett center is connected to the church’s fellowship hall, but it is divided and given a separate, secluded entrance from the street. The L-shaped building had wood-paneled walls with Bible verses scribbled across its white paint with colored chalk and markers — these were meant as encouragement for those people who will come one day to stay at the center.

Each of the rooms was marked off and labeled with designations. One was an office for a case manager, and there was an office for the assessment center director, a laundry area, common space and library. This was in addition to three bedrooms and a medical clinic.

Elder said the rooms were designed intentionally to give residents more than just a place to sleep. Residents have their own space for storage, computer desks in each of the rooms for children to do work or parents to apply for jobs.

Each space is designed to make residents feel safe, secure and give them the ability to “reach that next step” toward getting out of homelessness, Elder said.

“The facility itself really came about toward the end of last year,” Elder said. “We knew that the church that was operating here was not going to be able to sustain its operations for long, and we had the opportunity to either pitch this to the private sector… or as a community-based asset facility.”

The facility itself is the product of a collaboration between local government, the business sector and then the nonprofit and faith communities, according to Pat McDonough, Gwinnett Advisory Board chairman and partner at Andersen, Tate and Carr law firm. HomeFirst was born out of a clear need to advance the homeless system in Gwinnett, which has one of the largest homeless populations in Greater Atlanta, McDonough said.

Kaufman was present at the open house representing that partnership with the business community. The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce knows the importance of combining efforts with philanthropic organizations, which is part of why United Way has a regional office in the chamber building.

“They [United Way] are literally 8 feet above me,” Kaufman said. “As we have grown, the magnitude of the issues that we have to deal with and the human need has grown in terms of homelessness, food insecurity and access to health care, and we’ve got to organize as a community.”

The county has 68,000 children in its community that live in areas of low or very low child well-being, Kaufman said. There are currently 500,000 children living in areas of low or very child well-being across Greater Atlanta’s 13-county region. United Way uses 14 different data-driven child, community and family measures to determine an overall “Child Well-Being” score for each zip code on the map.

Part of ultimately reversing the implications of the Child Well-Being map is ensuring that families can have a way to receive services that don’t just treat symptoms of the problems in Gwinnett.

“What we know is that if we don’t look at the underlying issues, then they will be back two weeks from now,” Kaufman said. “If we do that, we’re not dealing with the problem, we’re treating the symptoms. We have to look at what is it that we can do to help you solve this so you can go back into the community as a contributing citizen.”

Those community leaders ended the day symbolically breaking through the barriers those underlying issues create. On a back wall of the Assessment Center in what will become a waiting area for families, sheets of paper with words like “Health Access,” “Poverty,” “Frustration,” and “Confusion” were arranged in rows. Propped up against another wall sat hard hats, gloves, glasses and about a dozen sledgehammers.

One-by-one, each person picked up the hammer and broke through one of the words on the wall—one of those barriers the homeless community faces. The demolition was yet another step toward seeing the HomeFirst Gwinnett facility brought to fruition.

“We are currently going through the permitting process, and then we will begin the actual renovations, procure the contractor and stuff like that,” says Elder. “We’re not really changing the footprint of the building, so we’re hoping the renovations will be relatively short, and we hope to get this place open to people as soon as possible.”

For more information on HomeFirst Gwinnett, click here.

Every day at 5:00 a.m. the alarm goes off. Paul and his family get up and crowd into their bathroom to brush their teeth and do their hair, and then begin the search for clean clothes before they rush out the door. The bus stop isn’t a far walk, it’s just down the parking lot and up the hill from their room. Paul is joined by other kids as they wait for the school bus. He doesn’t know them though; the names and faces change often.

Once Paul gets to school, he can finally eat breakfast. He enjoys school because it offers him a chance to be ‘normal’, even if it’s only for a little while. He gets to hang out with his friends and enjoy all the new things he’s being taught, he just wishes that he wasn’t so tired all the time. At lunch, the day begins to turn. While Paul’s friends talk about their new video games and shoes, he just silently nods along thinking about the second-hand sneakers from a clothing closet he’s wearing.

Once the school day is over, Paul returns to his room to find his mom reviewing the help wanted section of the newspaper. She was terminated because she called in too often to take Paul’s sister to multiple doctors’ appointments for asthma. Paul walked in and completed his assigned chores and then his homework, which is becoming more difficult without a computer or a desk.

After a light dinner, it’s time for bed. Paul brushes his teeth, puts on his pajamas and climbs into bed with his mom and two younger siblings. He prays that tonight the couple in the room above them don’t start fighting again so that he can get some sleep and do it all over again.

Sadly, this is an all too common a day in the life of a child whose family is suffering from homelessness in Gwinnett County. Our lack of shelters has driven too many families into local extended stay hotels and motels. These families believe that any roof is better than no roof and that it will only be for a few weeks until they’re back on their feet and able to pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward. However, most extended stays cost as much, if not more, than some of the apartments in Gwinnett, which inhibits the ability of the family to save and get themselves into stable housing.

This system is not sustainable; it’s not healthy. Our answer is HomeFirst Gwinnett, a comprehensive solution that focuses on advancing our entire homeless system. Solutions that provide families like Paul’s with access to services and options so that he and the more than 1,000 other kids who are identified as homeless in Gwinnett County Public Schools can have a brighter future.

As you carry out your year-end giving plans, please consider investing in HomeFirst Gwinnett. Paul and families just like his need you.  We need champions like you, ordinary citizens who want to lend a helping hand to make our children and families whole again.