Think of a child in the Fulton County School System. He’s in fourth grade, in a few years, he’ll be in middle school and before you know it, he’ll be walking across the stage with diploma in hand.

This little boy’s life hasn’t always been the easiest—his mother had difficulty keeping a full-time job until she started driving for Uber. They’ve both been living in motel rooms and temporary housing this year. Life is a struggle, but there’s enough to live on for now. Things are OK, and at least one thing has been a constant for this little boy through it all.

Each morning, he wakes up and goes to school. He may not have the same access to resources as his classmates or other children living in neighboring zip codes, but he gets the same opportunity for a quality education. This is his normal, the life he’s come to expect.

Life changed for this child on March 9, though, when it was announced a teacher in the Fulton County School System had confirmed they were infected with COVID-19. In the coming days, school systems were ordered to be closed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, shelter-in-place orders were enforced by state and local officials and children across the state were forced to stay at home.

But that created a whole new set of problems. It has been hard to get in touch with families, not all children had access to computers or the internet, parents lost jobs or had hours cut back tremendously, access to groceries, transportation and housing needs were pushed to the forefront—there were mental health issues to address, as well.

“We’ve always had these needs,” says Chelsea Montgomery, executive director of Counseling, Psychological and Social Work Services for Fulton County Schools. “COVID urgently increased our need for basic resources, and money would be critical. It’s expensive to get families in hotels.”

“We did a good job of making school meals accessible, but transportation was a challenge. Now we’re starting to see a lot more need for housing and support for COVID-related trauma.”

There are currently more than 1,300 students in the Fulton County School System who are homeless, Montgomery says. Those students and their families are spread throughout the county and are not just limited to one region.

While issues like these have always been apparent in Fulton County, the pandemic outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the forced shutdown of many businesses across Greater Atlanta have only exacerbated these problems. As of May 11, the infectious disease, COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and in severe cases, difficulty breathing, has infected more than 1.3 million and killed more than 78,000 people across the United States.

As schools shut down, Montgomery says her team of social workers began hearing from homeless children, foster families and other at-risk children of their specific needs. She said there wasn’t yet a way to fulfill them. They had to act quickly.

“The school Social Workers are in constant contact with families, and so are all of our Student Support Staff,” Montgomery says. “They have been checking in with families each week, and as those needs come up, the [School Social Workers] complete a request form, we have our internal reviewers take a look at those requests and we meet them.”

Montgomery was able to turn to Graham Huff with the Fulton Education Foundation to help provide funds and access for these families that needed it.

The Fulton Education Foundation was established to partner with the community to address the physical, emotional, academic and enrichment needs of all students. They have provided College and Career services, after-school programs, mental health services, early education opportunities and scholarships.

But this pandemic presented new challenges. Huff knew the need in Fulton County was great, and he leveraged previous relationships with contacts at United Way of Greater Atlanta and Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to apply for money through the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

The Fulton Education Foundation was awarded grants totaling $300,000 to contribute to the costs of housing, food, transportation and therapy for students presenting the greatest needs.

“We’ve placed 36 families so far, and we’ve helped them with some rent coverage,” Huff said May 11. “We’re also helping them with hygiene supplies and mental health services. We’ve put together a great committee, and we’re doing a great job for accountability.”

Huff, who has been the President and CEO of the Fulton Education Foundation for just “over a year,” said the foundation has looked at this as a “bottom-up approach,” working to provide homeless families a place to stay first, and then pre-loaded gift cards that can be used to purchase grocery items or to pay for transportation.

This was the first funding Huff had received from both United Way and Community Foundation, he says.

“We’ve really tried to implement best practices and set the standards for this type of support system,” Huff says. “We’ve been able to put more toward support of students this year than the previous 10 years combined—we’ve received large gifts even beyond this COVID-19 grant.”

Montgomery says her school system was “bombarded” with families in need once this pandemic struck.

“We were preparing, but it happened really quickly,” she says. “We didn’t have good, safe, quick solutions.

“But Graham came and said, ‘What are your challenges?’ I got with our lead team and said, ‘This is what we need.’”

These funds provided by United Way and Community Foundation gave Montgomery, her team and families in Fulton County one vitally important thing: hope.

That’s been invaluable during this time.

“It’s really nice for my staff to know that when we talk to these families, we have a solution,” Montgomery says. “Not only is it amazing for our families, but our morale has been better. It’s incredible to know there’s not a lot of red tape or rules and that we can just provide help, and fast. It’s exactly what our families needed.”

If you would like to help more children and families across Georgia, give to United Way of Greater Atlanta and Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

#WhyWednesday: Paul Jennings

For Paul Jennings, his why has everything to do with family. Today, hear why Paul’s parents inspired him to work for United Way of Greater Atlanta as our content writer and event script writer.

Individuals and families should never be homeless. We’re making sure people are given the tools and resources they need to pull themselves out of homelessness and onto a path of self-sufficiency. Learn more about our work in homelessness.

United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Tocqueville Society members understand what a significant gift can help accomplish.

Atlanta’s Tocqueville Society, which was formed in 1985, is named after French politician Alexis de Tocqueville, who recognized the importance of voluntary action. Members of Tocqueville Society are philanthropic leaders in the Atlanta area who contribute $10,000 or more annually to United Way of Greater Atlanta.

According to United Way Worldwide’s annual report, Tocqueville Society has generated more than $10 billion to date. There are 25,000-plus members in 400-plus societies around the world.

In Greater Atlanta, Doug Hutcherson is one of those philanthropic leaders. The CEO of Lockton Companies Southeast has always had ties to United Way.

“I’ve contributed to United Way for many years with former employers — even dating back to elementary school,” Hutcherson says. “United Way was always kind of an omnipresent charitable organization, and we were encouraged to donate money.”

Hutcherson has been CEO of Lockton in Atlanta for the past 16 years. He says he created the Lockton business in Atlanta “from scratch” with 12 people, and now the company is 300-plus strong and has grown with revenues of more than $100 million.

Lockton is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, and has always been passionate about service to United Way, Hutcherson says.

“It was a natural extension to Atlanta,” he says. “We carried on that cultural tradition. It was a natural fit.”

But around a decade ago, Hutcherson saw the work United Way of Greater Atlanta does from a different perspective.

Hutcherson had the opportunity to participate in one of United Way’s Street-to-Home outreach projects.

United Way’s Street-to-Home initiative seeks to end homelessness by helping people living on the streets obtain permanent housing and gain access to support programs.

United Way works alongside partner agencies to reach out to homeless communities in Atlanta in hopes of providing them transitional housing, and case management which enables a large majority of individuals to become independent.

The program helps to house hundreds of individuals each year.

During Street-to-Home outreach projects, volunteers will board buses early in the morning and drive around Atlanta to interact with the city’s homeless population. Volunteers such as Hutcherson will ask people if they can help put them in contact with resources.

Hutcherson says he went to United Way of Greater Atlanta early one morning for what he thought would be a discussion about how to provide services that would help the homeless population. It was then that he went into the streets with an ADP escort to directly engage people.

“The reason you go out at 5 o’clock is that you want to get to people before they get on the move,” Hutcherson says. “In those days, you have a group of people walking up to a homeless person on the street, and you can just think what was going through their head — ‘Am I about to be arrested, get beaten up, what’s happening?’

“There was very little trust between the homeless community, but with these outreaches over time, I think that we’ve done a good job of building relationships in this community.”

With these projects, Hutcherson was able to go beyond just giving a monetary gift. In all, he says he’s done about 25 or more of these outreach events, and he took his son out when he was 14 to help instill the importance of service.

This particular project was something that struck a chord with Hutcherson.

He said his office has allocated its United Way Campaign to the program each year since his first experience with Street-to-Home.

Hutcherson now serves on the Tocqueville Society Cabinet. He says he likes serving with other Tocqueville members and sees the group as a good leadership function for the Atlanta business community. He said Tocqueville does a nice job of promoting targeted philanthropy.

“Most Tocqueville Society members are good about sharing within their organizations the importance of philanthropy,” Hutcherson says. “Our company’s three pillars are clients, associates and communities in which we work and live. Giving back to the local community allows for the privilege of prospering in the being the business community.”

Hutcherson says he appreciates the leadership at United Way and called its message — specifically its new Child Well-Being message — an inspiring one.

“I have an inherent trust in United Way,” Hutcherson says. “I think it’s efficiently managed and United Way carries a very powerful brand within the philanthropic world. In Atlanta, I feel like it’s a very well-run organization. I think [President and CEO] Milton [J. Little, Jr.] does a great job, and [Vice President of United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness] Protip Biswas — I’m very impressed with how passionate they are. They believe in the message, which inspires others to act.”

If you are passionate about United Way’s message that all children deserve a chance to reach their full potential, donate to the Child Well-Being Impact Fund. Click here for more information about Tocqueville Society or learn more about how to get involved with United Way’s Street-to-Home initiative and how you can give.

#WhyWednesday: Josh Bray

“I really want people who feel unseen to know that they are seen.”

Josh Bray is the CEO of SafeHouse Outreach, which partners with United Way of Greater Atlanta to aid those suffering from homelessness to achieve stability and independent living. Today, hear why Josh aims to break the cycle of poverty and help those who need it most in Greater Atlanta.

Interested in learning how you can help those who need it most in your community? From homeless veterans to at-risk youth, United Way of Greater Atlanta is working to provide support and solutions for those in need. We’re making sure people are given the tools and resources they need to pull themselves out of homelessness and onto a path of self-sufficiency. Learn more here.

#WhyWednesday: Amy Barrow

Amy Barrow believes that every individual deserves access to safe, stable and secure housing—and she says that working at United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Regional Commission on Homelessness is living the dream! Today, learn why.

Want to do your part to make sure everyone in Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties has access to the stable housing they deserve? To learn more about how United Way of Greater Atlanta is addressing homelessness in our region, 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.

There are many different initiatives within United Way of Greater Atlanta to combat homelessness, help families, feed the hungry and provide hope and stability for people in need.

While Kids Home Initiative helps with all of these things, there’s a difference. Children become the focus behind finding a solution.

“In this program, the kid is the starting point. They are the reference point,” said Amy Barrow, director of the Kids Home Initiative.  “We start with housing, and we get referrals from Homelessness Liaisons at the school or a social worker about a family that is in a crisis. We also get in contact with apartment complexes, and we have good relationships with the office managers that know that community well.”

Kids Home is a comprehensive solution helping children avoid or escape homelessness by assisting children and families have secure and successful futures. They do it by helping kids stay in school.

“The overarching mission is to keep kids in their school of origin,” Barrow says.

By keeping kids in their own school regardless of their living situations, Kids Home can provide the child with at least one point of stability even though the rest of their life may be in flux.

And then, Kids Home can start to help parents by providing stable housing.

“We try to get them stably housed,” Barrow said. “It’s not crisis intervention. We’re not able to help someone if they have zero income, but we’re trying to stabilize them. Sometimes, it’s about helping with the extra move-in costs, turning on utilities or helping with a deposit.”

Miquael Williams moved to Atlanta from Daytona Beach, Florida with a pair of children. His marriage ended after the move, and this left him as the sole guardian. Unfortunately, things went south quickly.

His family moved from place-to-place and house-to-house. Williams’ car broke down, and this cost him his employment. He struggled to pay his rent, and he was later robbed at gunpoint at his apartment complex.

Williams needed help, and that’s where Kids Home came in. United Way connected him to partner organizations that helped him with receiving housing services.

“None of the places stood us up on our feet like United Way did,” Miquael says.

 

For more information or to sponsor Kids Home Initiative, contact Amy Barrow at abarrow@unitedwayatlanta.org.