Cynthia knew that February 11 was the last day she could lock a door behind her and stay out of the cold. She had fallen behind on rent at the extended stay hotel where she and her 14-year-old son Chris had been living, and the hotel manager gave her the final notice that security guards would arrive to lock them out that night.
“I am going back to volunteer. I've never done any volunteer work in my life, but being at Hagar's House and seeing the struggle people have, I will gladly volunteer. I will volunteer to do anything.” — Cynthia
That morning, Cynthia reached out to an organization called Project Community Connections, Inc. (PCCI). Before the day was out, Cynthia and Chris were staying at Hagar's House, DCM's shelter for women with children. Before the week was out, she was at a job fair that led to full-time work. A little over two months later, she moved into a small apartment on a MARTA line.
Cynthia's experience was partly the result of a partnership between Decatur Cooperative Ministry, which provides temporary shelter, comprehensive services, and other programs to help families stabilize, and PCCI, which helps families find affordable permanent housing. In 2009, the partnership received a Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing stimulus grant of $673,579 from DeKalb County, which will last through mid-2011. To date, DCM and PCCI have used the stimulus funds to re-house or prevent homelessness for a total of 88 families in DeKalb County. DCM kept 46 families from losing their homes, and PCCI placed 42 families back in permanent housing.
“As bad as it is that you have to go to the shelter, it was a very good experience for me and my son,” Cynthia says. “When I went to Hagar's House on February 11, Miss Sybil [Corbin, program manager] gave me resources. She told me I had to try to find a full-time job even though I was already working part-time. They gave me information about the job fair.” Cynthia was hired March 3 full-time as a suite attendant at the Marriott Residence Inn in DeKalb County and was recently interviewed for a supervisory position.
The next step for Cynthia was to find affordable housing near a MARTA line. PCCI uses Georgia Housing Search, an online referral and placement system that connects families with landlords of public and private housing. The agency helped Cynthia find the apartment in south Fulton and paid the deposit on it. But it was more than just an apartment locator.
“Miss Marlene [White, case manager] also works to make sure you're on task,” Cynthia says. “‘How are you feeling? How are you doing? Do you have any problems? Do you need clothes for interviews?’ Just a lot of things.”
“This place shouldn't even be called a shelter”.
While staying at Hagar's House, Cynthia attended counseling and financial management classes at night after working during the day. Despite the long days and stressful situation, she said her temporary home was more like a family than a shelter.
“It touched me so much the way they run Hagar's House and how much it's a family environment. They are really there to help you. This place shouldn't even be called a shelter. They will sit down with you because they know you. I appreciated just the fact that there were people out there that helped you. It was a family situation.”
Chris, now 15, attends school in Fulton County and is settling into the new apartment well. Living in temporary housing such as a hotel or shelter is far from uncommon among Georgia children. In DeKalb County and Decatur City schools alone, more than 1,600 homeless students were enrolled during the 2007-2008 school year, according to the 2008 report, Supportive Housing: An At-Risk and Homeless Plan for DeKalb County. The statewide graduation rate for these students is only 25% (2009 State Report Card on Homelessness).
It was the homeless liaison at Chris's school who recommended that Cynthia call PCCI last February. She was between jobs—a four-month assignment through a temporary labor agency had ended before Christmas, and a new second-shift job at a local laundry service was just starting. Because of her work record, the hotel manager had allowed her some flexibility in paying the rent, but eventually he demanded that she settle up.
By partnering, DCM and PCCI provide a full range of services to alleviate and prevent homelessness among families in DeKalb. DCM's services include an emergency financial assistance and education program, a food pantry and food cooperative, and long-term transitional housing, in addition to its shelter program. PCCI offers search and relocation services for affordable housing and in some cases, help with first month's rent or deposits. Together, the two organizations provide both temporary and permanent housing solutions for people who have found themselves in crisis.
Cynthia signed the lease on her new apartment April 19. She keeps in touch with Hagar's House and intends to return in a different capacity.
“I am going back to volunteer. I've never done any volunteer work in my life, but being at Hagar's House and seeing the struggle people have, I will gladly volunteer. I will volunteer to do anything.”
(Thanks to Nancy Saltmarsh for writing this story.)