Homeless Women Lack Shelter in Atlanta, Activists Are Livid
This article contained additional reporting by Matthew Cardinale.
(APN) ATLANTA — “You get depressed. Sometimes you don’t know why you wake up in the morning. You don’t know if you can make it another day,” Kimberly Saulsbury-Zetreene, 36, a homeless woman in Atlanta, told Atlanta Progressive News.
Each night, there are thousands of women like Kimberly and her friend Regina who roam the streets of Atlanta in search of shelter. Because of the painful lack of shelter for women, many are forced to sleep on sidewalks, in the park, or take the risk of rooming with a complete stranger.
Activists, officials, and social workers do not agree on the causes of the lack of shelter, or the solution to this crisis. But this is no consolation to Kimberly and Regina.
Activists are planning a Sleep-In outside City Hall to highlight the lack of progress on this issue, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.
“It’s not a money problem, it’s a political will problem,” on the part of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, activist Alan Harris said in a recent activist planning meeting.
How Many Homeless Women?
6,832 homeless persons were counted on one night in Atlanta, according to The 2005 Homeless Census and Survey of the Tri-Jurisdictional (Tri-J) Area, which includes the city of Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County. This is only a small fraction of homeless persons throughout any point during the year, as homelessness is episodic and not chronic for many. Moreover, the 6,832 persons counted were found on the street, in shelters, in transitional housing or permanent supportive housing, or in institutions. This ignores the hidden homeless: people in temporary and precarious situations, doubling up with relatives, sleeping on abandoned land and not known about, and others.
Because counting the homeless population is an inexact science, there is a good chance that there are hundreds, even thousands, who went uncounted.
“Between 40 and 55 percent of the people presenting for shelter are women or women with children,” Beaty said.
Kimberly and Regina’s Stories of Heartache
APN spoke with Kimberly Saulsbury-Zetreene and Regina Jenkins, 39, at the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless on Tuesday.
Jenkins is a single woman who became homeless in January for the first time. “The whole year is difficult [to find shelter],” Jenkins said. “Getting into… shelter for women with beds is very, very difficult.”
Saulsbury-Zetrenne has been homeless since May. She and her husband came to Atlanta to find income and a way to get back on their feet after her husband lost his job and they lost their Section Eight housing. She blames the loss of Section 8 to bureaucratic failures in her recertification process.
Meanwhile, Kimberly’s six children are staying in Connecticut with family while she’s working on getting housing; this saddens her the most. “Coming here has been an experience due to the fact that no one is used to being homeless,” she said. “We’re all here trying to make ourselves better.”
Both women contacted United Help when they first hit the streets to learn any information. “I stayed at The Salvation Army [at first] but that didn’t work out because you had to pay $70 per week to stay there,” Jenkins said. “You’re not really saving any money to get anywhere.”
“We were sleeping out on the streets, in the park, doing whatever we had to do to make ends meet,” Saulsbury-Zetrenne said. “We’d come upon some money, get a hotel for the night and at least feel like we were human.”
During the day, both women use the Atlanta Day Shelter, which serves approximately 250 per day, to receive services they need. Since no one can sleep at the Day Shelter, both women usually end up at The Task Force at night.
The Chairs at the Task Force
The Task Force is not licensed by the City of Atlanta to have beds for women, only for men. The Task Force used to house women in addition to the hundreds of men they house, but they say the City Council forced them to stop letting women sleep in beds through City zoning rules.
Some Council Members said they were concerned about the mixing of men and women, and the risk of homeless women being raped by homeless men, Anita Beaty, Task Force Executive Director, said. This, even though other shelters in the city house both homeless women and men without incident.
Beaty said the City wants “the men off Peachtree Street.” She said the City wants them to “trade” their men for women, by sending their men to The Gateway so The Task Force can take in women. They’re not ours to trade, she says.
The Task Force also operates the City’s 24 hour switchboard for homeless persons and agencies seeking referrals.
Any women The Task Force cannot get into other shelters, like the one on Ellis Street, which has over 100 beds for women, are allowed to sit in chairs in their lobby from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. The women have to come in in the afternoon and just sit there. They are not allowed to come in and out except for smoke breaks.
Saulsbury-Zetrenne and other women complain of leg swelling and other ailments that are only made worse from sitting up in chairs all night. “At least we are not out in the rain,” she conceded.
“Women have formed a community in our lobby,” said Anita Beaty, Director of the Task Force. There are on average 35 women staying in the lobby each night, she said.
On Tuesday when Atlanta Progressive News visited, there were 50 women waiting for chairs, Derrick Norrington, the Task Force’s Hotline Supervisor, said.
The Task Force is against turning anyone away but is stuck between a rock and a hard place because of existing laws and lack of resources.
“We just need the resources because we have all the tools to serve the community, but if we don’t have a bed for a person to sleep in, we can’t serve the community well,” Wendy Pickens of the Task Force said.
“When people get upset, they assume we are not doing enough,” Beaty added. “It’s not a matter of not doing enough or not working hard enough, it’s a matter of resources that could be open or not.”
The Mayor’s 10 Year Plan
Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced a plan to end chronic homelessness in Atlanta in 10 years in March 2003. United Way teams up with the Regional Commission on Homelessness (RCH) to provide staffing, funding, and other resources for The Gateway Center, opened July 27, 2005, on Pryor Street, and other RCH projects.
The Mayor’s Office points to some accomplishments during that time.
“A few of the noted accomplishments [of the ten year plan] include raising $20 million for supportive housing, spending $211,000 on prevention, which includes mortgage and rental assistance, and employing and training hundreds of homeless individuals,” according to a statement from the Mayor’s Office.
“We have an excellent start toward our ten-year goal and we look forward to aggressively accomplishing the objectives set in the Blueprint to End Homelessness,” the statement said.
Much of the plan addresses finding long-term housing solutions; but it is unclear how these are being pursued as the affordable housing crisis is skyrocking out of control in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, as the City says they plan to be looking for long-term solutions, thousands of women are homeless tonight in Atlanta without beds in which to sleep.
The Gateway Center
The Gateway Center “is not a shelter,” Vince Smith, Director of the Gateway Center, told Atlanta Progressive News. It is “a place where homeless people are taken into programs for extended periods of time,” he said.
“Our first question is, ‘How can we help you end your homeless situation?’” Smith said. “We are always looking through the lens of how to end homelessness.”
While there are 270 beds for men, there are only 30 for women. Smith attributed this to funding limitations, design changes, security issues, and limited ability to adapt designs to an existing building. The area for women and children is located separately on the first floor.
“All beds are program connected, [which] means that there is a specific program in place designed to help an individual toward independent living,” Smith said. “Everything is designed to speak to the core issues that contribute to homelessness.”
Smith said the Gateway Center has “program beds” and not emergency beds. Allowing a woman to sleep in a bed for 24 hours is not a solution, he said.
Kimberly and Regina don’t see it that way.
“It’s a solution for 24 hours,” Beaty concurred, adding that the Gateway Center receives money from various agencies who run the various programs and utilize the “program beds.”
Beaty said the Gateway Center has dozens of empty beds waiting to be rented by agencies.
Numerous Task Force employees testified that a shuttle bus from the Gateway Center will regularly bring a load of women to the Task Force and drop them off in front, sometimes in the middle of the night, to sit in their chairs, either unannounced or when the Task Force has already said they are not able to handle any more people.
Atlanta Progressive News has obtained photographs of the shuttle bus in action and a woman being let out the back door of the bus onto the street.
Smith told APN he is unaware of the shuttle making unannounced arrivals and said the shuttle will not go to the Task Force before calling first.
Smith also said beds for women are full at the Gateway Center and that no beds are going unused even though Beaty alleges she has seen the empty beds.
“All beds are full,” Smith told Atlanta Progressive News. “There are occasions when programs are open but those are short-lived because the programs are long term.”
The Gateway Center does not have waiting lists, Smith said.
Regina Jenkins told APN she had been to the Gateway Center but had not stayed, confirming that it is difficult to stay there but did say the day services she received were good.
Shelter Beds for Women in Decline; Housing Prices Skyrocket
Some shelters around Atlanta where there were beds for women have closed in recent years for various reasons, some unknown. Meanwhile, during this time the Mayor has promised to end chronic homelessness.
The Milton Avenue Shelter in the past contained over 100 beds. The First Iconium Baptist Church on Moreland Avenue had a space for women, also with over 100 beds.
“It’s high time to get those emergency beds replaced and then some. What we need is larger places for women to go, beds to sleep in,” Beaty said.
The RCH reports that there are 260 new permanent housing beds, 293 new transitional beds, and 80 assessment center beds in operation.
However, with other shelters being forced to close, there has been a net loss of beds for women, Beaty said.
Another 400 permanent housing beds, 350 transitional housing units and 200 assessment center beds are presently in development stages, the RCH says.
The planned Assessment Centers are places where single women and women with children will be able to come and stay for at least three months, Paul Bolster, Director of Supportive Housing for United Way and RCH, said.
During that time there will be reevaluations while the centers help women and children get what they need and “decide what the next step should be,” he said.
Long periods of time pass between a project’s approval, through construction, and onto completion, Bolster said. Lack of funds or other unforeseen snafus can slow down projects, he said.
Completing projects that are in development now by the end of 2007 is a “reasonable” timetable, Bolster said.
Bolster added that projects will provide balanced housing for homeless men and women. Although he told APN some projects are being set aside for women and children only, Bolster could not quote a specific figure.
Homeless Activists Are Sick of Waiting
One homeless advocacy group is taking matters into their own hands to ensure that emergency shelters and beds can be provided to any women and children who seek it.
The Coalition for the Homeless Mentally Ill (CHMI) are lobbying the RCH and Mayor Franklin to end the shortage of beds for women and children as quickly as possible and to make sure shelter can be provided within 12 hours of a request.
CHMI has already sent two letters to Mayor Franklin, one dated Nov. 1, 2005, and the other Feb. 14, 2006. Both letters have been obtained by Atlanta Progressive News. CHMI says they received a “vague response” to the November letter and none at all for the February letter.
The first letter suggested reopening the Adamsville Recreation Center, used to house refugees from Hurricane Katrina, for 100 women and children. If that was not enough, CHMI suggested opening more and more temporary shelters to house women and children until the RCH opened more permanent shelters.
The second letter suggested putting more money into Travelers’ Aid, an organization that places homeless people in motels and hotels only after verifying there are no available shelters.
Travelers’ Aid used $155,000 in grant money donated by United Way to house 500 women and children in motels and hotels this past winter. CHMI’s idea was to build on that.
Catherine Woodling, spokeswoman for Mayor Franklin, told APN Travelers’ Aid is a private, non-profit organization not under control of the Mayor’s Office. She attributes this to why there has been no response to CHMI’s letter of Feb. 14, 2006.
CHMI invited members of the faith community and other homeless advocates to their regular meeting held on Wednesday, July 19, 2006, to discuss ideas on how to solve this problem. Attendees were encouraged to share their concerns and questions.
“If these were members of our own family, would we react differently to the numbers?” one attendee added.
Some ideas included allowing churches and/or homeless shelters to alter their property or add to their facilities so they can house women and children.
City Councilwoman Carla Smith told Atlanta Progressive News if churches want to house the homeless, they should apply for a special use permit through the city. In addition, they should apply for a permit from the state and health department.
Although it might seem that these are too many government hoops to jump through, Smith said, “They are hoops that make things safe.”
CHMI meeting attendees have decided to have a Sleep-In or a series of Sleep-Ins in front of City Hall where homeless people who are affected by this problem are bussed to City Hall to sleep overnight or over a series of nights.
Harris told the audience that political protest like this was not necessarily always in their playbook but becomes an option when “you don’t know what else to do.”
CHMI is meeting again next Wednesday to hash out the details of the protest.
Kimberly and Regina Speak Out
“To me, it’s a lack of women and children’s shelters,” Regina Jenkins said.
Both she and Saulsbury-Zetreene find they have a much easier time receiving helpful services during the day at places like the Atlanta Day Shelter but find it much more difficult to find decent shelters at night.
“If I had known that I could bring my children with me instead of sending them away, know[ing] that I could receive help and services quicker, I would have,” said Saulbury-Zetreene. “When you’re single, you’re trying to make it-you don’t get as much help.”
When told about Mayor Franklin’s Plan to end chronic homelessness in 10 years, Saulsbury-Zetrenne laughed loudly and responded, “I think she [Mayor Franklin] is a fool because there is no way she is going to end homelessness in 10 years. Someone is always going to be evicted… it looks good on paper, but in reality it’s not going to work.”
Saulsbury-Zetrenne had this suggestion: “If you’re going to make any more shelters for women, what you should do is train the women who are in the shelters now to help the women who are coming in behind them to give them that guidance. If you don’t give them that guidance then they’re not going to get anywhere once they get out.”
“She [Mayor Franklin] should put herself in a lot of these women’s shoes and stay in a shelter one or two nights a week,” Jenkins said.
“Have one of her staff members come in here like a homeless woman and really see what we go through,” Saulsbury-Zetrenne added.
She wants everybody to know “that not everybody is homeless because they want to be. Regardless of if you’re homeless or not, you still need to be respected.”
“I want this experience to teach me something… I don’t want to go through this experience again,” Saulsbury-Zetrenne said.
About the author:
Jonathan Springston is a Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This article contained additional reporting by Matthew Cardinale, News Editor.
This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.