The homeless in Forsyth County mostly stay out of sight and out of mind.
Sleeping in cars, camping behind businesses and living under bridges, the population of homeless in the county isn’t like that of urban areas.
Local workers and volunteers discussed how to tackle the issue during a Thursday conversation organized by the United Way of Forsyth County.
Those 15 agency representatives launched a process to determine and address the community’s homeless needs.
Defining homelessness, they agreed, is the first step.
Sandy Beaver, executive director of The Place of Forsyth County, said the term can be used to encompass a variety of situations, but suggested the group use a portion of the nonprofit’s definition as a starting point.
Also used in the school system’s definition, the homeless can be broadly considered as “anyone who lacks a regular, adequate nighttime residence,” Beaver said.
The Place also seeks to help the “near homeless,” which includes people in danger of being evicted or having their home foreclosed upon.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society has targeted that group whenever possible, Tom Murphy said.
“It’s homeless prevention,” Murphy said. “If we can get to somebody that’s on the cusp before they’re on the street, we’ll make that a higher priority.”
One of the largest issues facing local agencies that work with the homeless is the lack of a general shelter. Many other county organizations simply refer people to options outside of Forsyth.
Calls come in every day for people seeking a place to stay, said Tara Hall, executive director of Family Haven, which provides shelter for victims of domestic violence.
She finds the lack of space for people needing beds frustrating.
“The state of the nation is that we’re in a state of crisis where the jobs are limited and people are losing their homes,” Hall said. “Every shelter that’s out there is at capacity.”
Providing a shelter for the homeless can be a difficult community issue if not done properly, added John Haigler, executive director of the Bald Ridge Boys’ Lodge.
He referenced a shelter built years ago in Rome that attracted the homeless from Atlanta. They came from urban agencies who had tried to help them for years.
“There needs to be a shelter for residents of Forsyth County,” Haigler said. “But there needs to be some pretty strict guidelines and a screening process.”
The Place assists the homeless not by directing them to a shelter, but rather securing a low-cost rental residence selected by the person or family in need, Beaver said.
One of the issues there is the substandard housing within the community, which Beaver said can qualify a family as homeless.
The Place’s definition includes people who may have a structure they call home, but it doesn’t have utilities or has conditions most would consider unlivable, she said.
Mary Biegler of St. Brendan’s Catholic Community agreed that some Forsyth residents “might as well be homeless.” People are living in rental properties with no windows or floors or cardboard covers, she said.
Murphy added that the county has no code addressing substandard rental housing, and many of those people “have no alternative.”
To address the issue locally, the group hopes to survey the number of homeless and do a needs assessment to come up with a strategic plan.
Kat Doyle, a county resident and member of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said the community has wonderful resources, including wealth and many faith-based organizations.
“It’s like anything, you have to admit there’s a problem,” Doyle said. “We have got to do something to get our larger community to see that this exists.”
She hoped the meeting would be the catalyst to address the issue of homelessness.
The group plans to gather again in April to shore up the definition of homelessness and begin working toward documenting the issue.