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Report shows shape of Georgia's homeless problem

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Just because you don't see them, it doesn't mean they're not there.

A new report on homelessness in Georgia, released this month, shows there were, one night in January 2008, more than 20,000 homeless people in the state.

Though the heaviest concentration of homeless people is in Atlanta -- with the number almost reaching 7,000 -- Clayton County and Henry County each had been 50 and 100 homeless people, not living in any shelter, according to the report.

"It is easy in suburban and rural areas to assume that homelessness does not exist," the report says, "while in urban areas, homeless individuals are seen as a public nuisance."

The report, put together by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, is the first attempt at a comprehensive look at homelessness in the state. The wording is phrased carefully to clarify that everything in the document is tentative, because of the nature of the population pictured, but the report does give a good glimpse at the size and shape of homelessness.

Mike Beatly, commissioner of the community affairs department, wrote, in an introduction, to the report, that the "face of homelessness" is often inscrutable.

"Have you seen the face of homelessness?" he wrote. "Maybe it was the face of someone sleeping in a doorway or under a bridge. Maybe it was the face of someone you served while volunteering at a local emergency shelter, clothes closet, or food pantry. Maybe it was the face of a friend or relative. How many faces are there? What is behind those faces?"

According to the report, 40 percent of homeless people have been homeless for less than six months, contradicting the often-held idea homeless people have always been homeless and face unsolvable problems. Only about 30 percent of the population was found to have been without a home for more than two years. There's a high turnover rate -- while about 20,000 people were homeless on one night in January, the report estimates that 75,000 Georgians will be homeless at some point during 2008.

The single largest cause of homelessness was poverty and the high price of housing. In the metro-Atlanta area, including Clayton County and Henry County, a family has to earn at least $32,000 a year to spend less than 30 percent of its income on housing.

People who live in the area and make minimum wage, or live below the "poverty line" -- for a family of four in Georgia, that would be about $20,000 -- pay an significantly larger portion of their income on housing, which makes their situation insecure, and makes them vulnerable to homelessness.

According to the new report, 725,000 Georgians pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing. An estimated 1.3 million live in poverty in the state, and more than half of those live in "extreme poverty."

About 58 percent of the homeless in metro Atlanta were reported to suffer from some disability, developmental or physical, and 22 percent were said to have " severe mental illness."

Mental illness is a major vulnerability, making people prone to homelessness in Georgia, followed by substance abuse, disabilities, family violence, bad credit and criminal backgrounds.

All of the vulnerabilities, according to the report, are cyclical, each causing people to be homeless and then, homelessness, in turn, making the problems worse, exacerbating the underlying situation.

The report doesn't suggest strategy or solution, but homeless care providers hope the clearer picture of the problem will help in meeting it.

"It is important," according to the report, "to have some understanding of the magnitude and scope of the problem."