Saba Long is Atlanta Civic Circle’s executive director. She’s worked with a variety of civic organizations and government agencies over her career.
“We’re being evicted and are trying to survive in a car … Please help,” read the email I received in the wee hours of Saturday, April 8.
I immediately flashed back to my days doing constituent services for a city council office and responded. I asked the 21-year-old young woman what county she and her 24-year-old boyfriend lived in and let her know I’d be back in touch.
Over the next 72 hours, I made calls, left voicemails, and sent texts, hitting roadblock after roadblock. This is what she’s dealing with, I thought to myself. No wonder she’s at her wit’s end.
The United Way’s 2-1-1 line isn’t staffed on the weekends –– I later learned it is due to staffing shortages and changes made during the pandemic. On off hours, metro Atlanta residents can text the number to receive a tailored yet automated list of potential resources.
I decided to rely on my contacts, reaching out to the CEOs of two of the largest nonprofits in metro Atlanta. One pointed me to shelters and housing organizations to contact; they also connected me to a helpful senior staffer. The other said they would help with job placements ––good news. But I still didn’t have a bed for this young couple on Saturday night.
I also called the CEO of a nonprofit I’ve worked with, remembering they provided emergency relief support to individuals and families at the height of the pandemic. They were out of emergency funds for Fulton County, she told me, but she promised to connect the couple to her team. Less than an hour after we spoke, she forwarded me a text she’d just received from a woman with a child facing the same predicament.
One shelter where I left a voicemail never got back to me. I called again Monday afternoon, but they were full. The staffer recommended the couple arrive by 8 a.m. the next day in hopes of making the waiting list for the night. What if they didn’t have transportation or money for a MARTA fare? Then what?
Another organization specializing in housing couples told me they have a waitlist for nearly three months.
When I spoke to the young woman on Monday, she was on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack. They’d spent Sunday night at an Econo Lodge but didn’t have the funds to afford a second.
Feeling utterly helpless, I again called one of the recommended organizations I’d tried to reach over the weekend. The case manager asked if there was a substance abuse problem. “Not that I know of,” I said. She told me they couldn’t do much but was happy to talk to the young lady. I passed along her contact info.
Monday night the couple made plans to sleep in a library parking lot.
The young woman told me Tuesday that her grandmother is letting them stay with her for a few days, but even that isn’t guaranteed. Between the couple, both of their families are also struggling to survive. Her mother is currently in a shelter. There is no safety net for them to rely on during tough times.
This experience has certainly given me a crash course in case management. It also crystallizes the crushing weight of economic insecurity in metro Atlanta. One eviction, one medical emergency, one missed paycheck–and everything changes.
Here are some of the gaps I see in the system here in Atlanta based on this one case:
- Metro Atlanta needs a real-time database of available beds by type of need. Instead of calling individual organizations and hoping someone answers–especially on the weekend–civic and government organizations that serve people needing shelter should be able to see what’s available at that moment and where across the five-county region.
- 2-1-1 should have live operators seven days a week. The staff I spoke with were incredibly helpful and responsive. But the after-hours text function is not much better than just browsing the web for a solution.
- We need more shelters that accept couples. One refrain I heard constantly was the pair would likely be separated, since they’re not married. I thought about this as I listened to the boyfriend gently calm his partner down and help her breathe through a breakdown.
- The need far outpaces the resources. From available beds to staffing to wraparound services, nonprofits need more funding to support metro Atlantans facing housing and economic insecurity.
Since that early morning email, I’ve talked to this young lady daily, trying to connect her to resources and people who can help. And encouraging her not to give up. I’m hopeful that in the not-too-distant future, she and her boyfriend will look back on this challenging period and marvel at how far they’ve come.
At Atlanta Civic Circle, we cover housing affordability, including the homelessness crisis –– from those living in motels to the unhoused. Our reporters are shining a light on what’s working and what’s not, talking with community organizations and impacted residents.
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