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Having no place to go on Christmas

By Justin Boron

Annette Lee is already preparing her Christmas wishlist for next year.

What she wants is a real place for the area's homeless to go to get out of the cold or to have a bite to eat.

Today, while families exchange presents and bite into their holiday hams, there are underprivileged people who have no place to go in Clayton and Henry counties, said, Lee, who is the director of Feed My People.

The group distributes 100,000 pounds of food each month to disadvantaged families, she said.

"They're everywhere," Lee said, hiding in the bushes on a freeway exit or behind Big Lots in Stockbridge.

Shelter and food are severely limited by access and funding, said Denese Rodgers, the director of Connecting Henry.

"Henry County does not have shelters or soup kitchens, which is heartbreaking," she said.

The growing homeless problem in the area has prompted a cooperative effort between the two counties' social service agencies, which could culminate in the purchase of the abandoned Kmart building near Stockbridge off Ga. Highway 138.

Lee said she envisions the building as a headquarters for a multitude of social services in the area so that the homeless will not just be fed and sent on their way.

It will be a support net that could give the underprivileged the necessary tools to succeed, she said.

Lee also is making a push to raise awareness about the area's homeless, saying it has been swept under the rug in the past.

Addressing the homeless problem has been difficult because of its relative invisibility to the general public said Eileen Misek, a community resource specialist for the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services.

"We don't see them in the street like in Atlanta," she said.

Many of the homeless are transient families who stay in the weekly hotels, Misek said.

Others set up camps in the woods or behind shopping centers, Lee said.

Obfuscated from public view, social services cannot account for the number of people in the two counties who have no home, she said.

This deficiency has fueled a need for a "homeless census," Misek said.

Several local officials, including Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, have recognized the need to identify the homeless problem, she said.

Clayton County commission Chairman-elect Eldrin Bell also has said solving the homeless problem will be part of his plan to create a "caring" county government.

Preparations for the homeless census will begin next year, Lee said.

But it takes nearly a year to organize, so Clayton County will not likely have a homeless number until 2006, she said.

Meanwhile, the isolated shelters in the area continue to try and meet the needs of the dozens of indigent families and individuals.

The Calvary Refuge Center in Forest Park provides three meals a day and will transport many of homeless people to Atlanta for food on Christmas day, said Kristen Schooler, who works at the shelter on Thurmond Road.