On Friday, August 13, the culmination of a monumental community effort came to life with the dedication of Gwinnett County’s first and only homeless shelter, The Resting Spot. After many years of planning, United Way of Greater Atlanta’s HomeFirst Gwinnett initiative gathered community leaders and government officials for an official ribbon cutting to commemorate the occasion and celebrate a vision realized.

The $1 million, 20-bed facility located in Norcross will house women and their children and includes a library, computer lab, dining area and landscaped courtyard for guests to use up to 90 days. Government funding along with monetary and in-kind donations from corporate partners made the shelter’s opening possible. “We are happy to finally be in position to provide women and their children a temporary place to rest and regroup while they work to secure transitional housing,” said The Resting Spot Shelter Director, Brandee Thomas. “From job training to mental health services, we are aligned with community partners who can assist families with making the transition from the shelter to stable housing.”

At the ribbon cutting, Chad Dillard, Chief Development Officer of United Way of Greater Atlanta, recognized many instrumental community leaders and organizations like the Primerica Foundation, Gwinnett County Government, and former Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman, Charlotte Nash. He also acknowledged Pat McDonough, community advocate and long-time United Way of Greater Atlanta volunteer, who championed the mission and led community stakeholders to embrace the hard task of finding the resources and partnerships to see the shelter across the finish line. “United Way of Greater Atlanta is extremely grateful for these community partners and for leaders like Pat McDonough who became the ultimate champion, connector, visionary, driver and everything else we needed to ensure The Resting Spot came to fruition,” said Chad. “United Way is grateful for your leadership.”

Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman and United Way volunteer, Nicole Love Hendrickson, discussed the complexities of homelessness citing the statistic that an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people experience homelessness in Gwinnett. “In 2017, the average age of a homeless person in Gwinnett was just 6 years old,” said Hendrickson. “Homelessness is a complex and tragic problem that has only worsened during the pandemic, and Gwinnett County is fortunate to have a partner like HomeFirst Gwinnett on the front lines addressing this issue.”

On Tuesday, August 17, the shelter officially opened and welcomed two families and four single women who were experiencing homelessness. While at the shelter residents will have access to the Norcross Assessment Center, a one-stop shop for resources and support to start their journey to better financial stability. “There is so much more work to do to address this complex problem of suburban homelessness,” said Matthew Elder, Executive Director of HomeFirst Gwinnett. “The shelter opening has been a long time coming and we wanted to make sure we were equipped and 1,000 percent ready to fully support families in need.”

To learn more about the shelter opening and experience the ribbon cutting, click here. For those who are experiencing homelessness and in need of help, please call the Norcross Assessment Center at 770-847-6765 or visit www.homefirstgwinnett.org for assistance.

Previously published on SaportaReport.com.

Markesha moved to Atlanta, escaping a Florida neighborhood that had become violent and unsafe for her two children.

But finding an apartment became a challenge—and it wasn’t because of a previous eviction or lack of income, but for something else beyond her control. The single mom took refuge in a motel.

“I had moved from Florida, got a motel expecting to simply apply for housing here in Atlanta,” Markesha says. “I had lived in Atlanta before, and I was determined to simply start over.”

But that didn’t happen. Markesha says every apartment she applied to denied her.

 “I couldn’t understand it because I don’t have any evictions, felonies or things like that,” she says. “I found out that I had two really high unpaid light bills in my name from two different states. I never lived in those states. Someone used my name.”

The unfortunate event led to what she calls an “11-month battle of homelessness.” She says living in the motel was a “horrible” experience. She had to send her eldest daughter to live with her mother and keep her son with her.

“I couldn’t have my family unit together,” she says. “I was trying to escape my old environment but living in the hotel made it feel like I was back in the same environment. Living in a hotel is no place to raise a child.”

There was no space to move around, no stove—and the environment she was trying to escape by moving to Atlanta had crept its way back into her life. She was paying more than $1,000 monthly for a space that was too small and didn’t allow her to be with her family. She started to think about moving back to Florida.

But then Markesha got a flyer from a friend at the motel about a “Motel-to-Home” program through United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Regional Commission on Homelessness.

The Regional Commission on Homelessness and United Way are working to end homelessness and change lives in Greater Atlanta. Motel-to-Home is a three-step process of outreach, housing and aftercare. Housing location specialists work to identify the barriers each family faces and then match them with affordable housing.

Once a family is able to pay their own rent or mortgage without assistance, the family is eligible for ongoing aftercare services, which include financial literacy training, workshops and incentive-based programs.

“Right before that flyer came into my life, I was just about to pack up and move back to Florida,” Markesha says. “I applied to so many apartments and they all said ‘no.’ I was paying $1,050 for a motel room monthly – no space, no real kitchen, no extra room, and my family was still split. Now, I live in a two-bedroom apartment with a full-size living room, dining room, kitchen, and two bathrooms for $955.

“I can cry right now. You just don’t realize just how much this place means to me.”

Motel-to-Home is modeled after United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Street-to-Home Initiative, which aims to connect families living in motels to their own permanent housing.

Homeless families and individuals will often live in motels when they may be on the brink of homelessness. There are motels in every county that families use as a last resort. Motel-to-Home intervenes to provide families with case management, assistance with deposits and follow-up care to capitalize on their existing strengths and income.

The program helped Markesha get her family back, she says. He daughter was able to return back home.

“That’s the biggest blessing,” she says. “My husband died a few years ago and that’s how I became a single mom. My husband was my best friend.
“So, to go through this struggle and having to split my family was the hardest thing ever. But living here allowed us to reunite.”

Will you unite with us to do more for families in Greater Atlanta—families like Markesha’s? When we unite, we can change lives. Let’s do more, together.

A man had his hours cut at work—from eight hours a day down to three—because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, his employer told him that they would have to let him go. There was only one thought on his mind, though: how was he going to pay for his rent and take care of his family?

He says a friend told him to reach out to Inspiritus because they were assisting people who had also lost their job.

“When I called Inspiritus to ask for help, I got one month rent for my home,” he says. “I was under stress financially and mentally. The one-month rent assistance gives me so much support because I know everyone is desperately in need.”

There are many in Greater Atlanta who are “desperately in need” right now. Inspiritus is a nonprofit organization focused on guiding people who have “experienced disruption” back on the path from simply surviving to a position where they can thrive.

Calling the pandemic outbreak of the novel coronavirus a “disruption” is an extreme understatement.

About two weeks into March, major cities across the country began shutting down businesses, restaurants, gyms and schools in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus. As of Aug. 24, COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and in severe cases, difficulty breathing, has infected more than 5.6 million people nationwide and killed more than 176,000.

This is more than just a health crisis. There are families in Greater Atlanta who are feeling the economic impact, too.

“The families that COVID has disproportionately hit have been the low-income families and people of color,” says Sarah Burke, Development Associate for Inspiritus.

Inspiritus provides services to a large refugee and immigrant population. They provide financial advisement, disability services, disaster relief and they also have a career center to help connect clients to employment. Inspiritus delivers basic needs, safety, community integration and self-sufficiency programs and services to help individuals and families achieve a “thriving life.”

Things have changed in the past six months, though. They have also been connecting families with food banks and making sure children and their parents are receiving EBT relief, Burke says.

“We want to make sure parents know what resources are available to them, their rights and that they have a strong liaison to the community between the resources and their family,” Burke says.

But many of the requests for help have come in the form of rental assistance, Burke says. Many people who apply for help have lost their jobs because of COVID-19, they’ve been furloughed or laid off or have had to take up to two weeks off because of exposure to the virus and have missed a paycheck.

“We have teams that can help them find jobs,” Burke says. “For many, this is one-time relief and the goal is that they can return to work if they’ve had COVID or, if they’ve lost their job, they can come to our staff and find a new job. They need to make sure they don’t fall behind on rent because of an interruption in their employment or income, and they need to make sure they aren’t evicted because of COVID.”

According to the Aspen Institute, if current conditions do not change, 29-45 percent of renter households in Georgia could be at risk of eviction by the end of the year.

Organizations like Inspiritus are crucial, but so is the funding it takes to provide these services.

Inspiritus was one of the most recent recipients of grant funds made possible through the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, a joint effort from United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

On Aug. 11, United Way and Community Foundation announced the seventh round of grants for the COVID-19 response. Inspiritus received $100,000 to meet the increased demand for financial assistance in its multi-county area.

The seventh round of grants totaled roughly $1.13 million and targeted emergency financial assistance for housing-related costs. The grants went to 10 organizations in response to the region’s needs resulting from COVID-19.

Inspiritus has been a longstanding partner with United Way prior to COVID-19 and has supported the organization’s work with children and families and its refugee and immigrants services — you can learn more about Inspiritus and their work at www.weinspirit.org.

The past few months have been difficult, but Burke says it has shown how strong Inspiritus’ team is and just how important collaborations with organizations like United Way and Community Foundation can be.

She says the staff miss having that firsthand, heart-to-heart connection with those families they help.

“It’s hard—hard is not even the right word,” she says. “It’s had a strong, emotional impact on our staff and the clients to not be able to sit with them, but our leadership team has done a phenomenal job of trying to improve morale.

“Our team is incredible, they work so hard and care so strongly about the people that they are serving.”

To help those in need, donate to the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. If you would like to empower communities of color in Greater Atlanta impacted by decades of systemic barriers and disinvestment, donate to the United for Racial Equity and Healing Fund.

You can also ensure that all children in Greater Atlanta have access to the same resources and opportunities by donating to the Child Well-Being Impact Fund.

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.