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Recent killing a reminder of homeless' strife

By Justin Boron

Feeble blockades made from tarp and blankets are almost the only protection the homeless have in the south metro area, social service workers say.

The dangers of being homeless in Clayton and Henry counties have become evident in the weeks following the death of Janice Cunningham, 54, who was murdered after being sexually assaulted.

Funeral services for Cunningham were held Monday, and Henry Sheffield, the man charged with her killing, sits in jail.

But a larger problem remains for hundreds of other homeless people in the Southside, social service workers say.

With few shelters and government-provided services to rely on, they largely fend for themselves, said Annette Lee, the executive director of Feed My People.

Castaway from society, the forlorn souls inhabit what look to be piles of garbage on the side of the freeway. A closer look reveals makeshift homes, constructed out of materials like vinyl tarp, cardboard box, and discarded furniture.

But the destitution extends beyond back alleys and freeway exits.

The type of people with no home varies, said Eileen Misek, a community resource specialist for the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services.

Some are transients. Some are down on their luck and don't have the necessary means to recover. Others are families who have no discernible place to live, moving from motel to motel, she said.

People like Lee and Misek, who work with the homeless regularly, have noticed steady growth in the number of wanderers in the area – most of them just scrapping for survival.

With little being done by local government to mitigate the problem in the two growing suburban counties, Lee said she worries those suffering from homelessness are being swept under the rug.

Clayton County commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he plans to address the problem by unifying the efforts of social service agencies like Feed My People in Stockbridge or the Calvary Refuge Center in Forest Park.

"I'm very sensitive to the needs of the homeless," he said. "We've been addressing (the problem) in a very fragmented way."

One of the first steps, Lee said, is identifying the problem.

The transience of the homeless people and the region's inability to collaborate have hidden the anonymous faces that sleep in the woods or in abandoned gas stations, she said.

But the various social service groups are preparing to conduct a homeless census, Lee said.

Lee also wants to centralize homeless efforts at a former K-mart in Stockbridge, where indigent would have shelter and access to all of the area's social service agencies in one place.

Meanwhile, as part of the outreach program at Feed My People, Catherine Grimes and Wayne Clement say they are working to ensure that the names, faces, and locations of the two counties' homeless are not forgotten.

They travel around looking deep into the woods that most drivers do not give a second glance as they rush by on their commute.

Slowing by a freeway exit, Clement peers in at some debris to look for movement.

Once they have found an inhabitant, the duo tries to put the person on the group's three-prong program, which includes food, clothes, and an employment program.

Sometimes they succeed. Other times they are turned away by people already too disillusioned or too proud to accept help.

The following are three of the people they have tried to help.

'Dollar General' Susie

Susie lived in the woods behind a Stockbridge shopping center.

She is gone now.

But what she called her home looked to be little more than a child's play-fort. A tattered couch was her bed, and she used a splintered wooden dresser for her thrift store clothes.

"Can you imagine your dresser and your stuff outside?" Grimes asked as she walked through the woman's former home.

Her meager interaction with the mainstream world was through some of the employees of Dollar General adjacent to her camp.

"Most of the time she would cry," said May Morris, 49, a Dollar Store clerk.

In several scattered accounts, she told the employees she had suffered a breakdown and lost a child.

The memory of that child haunted her whenever families passed by her camp, Morris said.

Once, she said, Susie insisted on giving a teddy bear to a boy walking from the store with his mother.

Employees at the store had grown attached to her like the citizens of Riverdale were attached to Cunningham.

And like in Riverdale, relationships with the Stockbridge's transients are fleeting.

Melvin Fulton, another employee at the store, said Susie never left her spot. Then, one day she just wasn't there anymore.

"She was like the security guard of the place," said Fulton, 56.

The flimsy shelters like Susie's are left behind for another homeless person to inhabit.

Their constant presence illustrates homelessness' endless cycle, Grimes said.

Already, there were signs that someone new had taken Susie's home, she said, judging from the freshly laid bubble wrap covering Susie's old sofa from the rain.

Clement and Grimes said they would reach out to that person as well.

Bill of Loredo, Texas

Bill, 54, floats in and out of cities with the memory of a Sioux wife and four children he has left behind in Texas.

He said he hitch-hikes and sometimes walks to his next home, which translates to traveling until he finds a safe place to put up his four-man camping tent.

Recently, he had set up near the freeway in Henry County.

To earn money, Bill holds a sign that walks a thin line between panhandling and exercise of free speech.

It reads, "Sometimes in life, everybody needs help, sometimes."

Bill admits the message is intended to draw charity, but said police typically do not harass him because the sign technically doesn't ask for anything.

"It tells the truth," he said. "I'm not asking for nothing. I'm just making a statement."

Clement and Grimes offered to help, but he turned them down, saying he didn't like the crowds of a shelter.

J.D. and Teddy Bear

J.D., 32, travels with his mutt, Teddy Bear, and had made it to Henry County all the way from northern California.

But upon arriving, he said he was picked up by Henry County police and placed in jail. His dog went to the pound.

"That's why it's best not to stay in one spot," he said.

He also confessed J.D. wasn't his real name. It was his "traveling name" used so people can't track down his record as easily.

He also turned down help from Grimes and Clement.

On the way back from one of their almost daily ventures, they said they would continue to grinding down the homeless problem, but hoped help from local government would be on the way soon.