There are about 200 people in Cherokee County experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity and struggling to get back on their feet, according to Marianne Butler, executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Cherokee County (HCCC). The nonprofit is a partnership of six local churches — Canton First, Fields Chapel, Hickory Flat, Liberty Hill and Waleska United Methodist churches and The Way Woodstock — working to provide relief and restoration for these individuals.
Although 200 is the documented number, according to a 2022 county study, Butler said this number likely is underestimated. The U.S. Census Bureau reported there were more than 280,000 people living in our county in 2022. Finding and counting people experiencing homelessness is difficult, and their stories are as varied as they are sad.
Susan, a single mother of two, was evicted from her apartment within a week after getting behind in her rent. Rolly was just released from prison with a bus ticket and a list of resources; he has no family willing to take him in, no phone and no transportation. Rayna, who is pregnant, lost her job and her housing. She found a place for her two children, but she has been sleeping in her van, which is where she felt her baby’s first kick.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Butler said, “especially when children are involved. This is an often-forgotten segment of our society. Most people can’t imagine — and don’t think about — people who are experiencing homelessness.
“Many think people lose their housing because of addiction or mental illness or some personal flaw, like laziness. While that is occasionally true, people become unhoused for all kinds of reasons.”
Some have jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the high cost of rent, Butler said. Others want to work but have difficulty finding jobs without a permanent address, clean clothes or child care. Some women lose their housing because they’re escaping abusive relationships. High inflation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has compounded the challenges for people who already were living paycheck to paycheck. When their car breaks down or a family emergency arises, they often have few or no options.
Founded in January 2020, HCCC has developed a three-phase program to address housing insecurity in the county.
- Phase I. Operation Roof is a collaborative referral program that provides up to a seven-night stay at a local motel. In addition to a roof over their heads, clients receive a hotel-friendly meal kit, which includes a week’s worth of meals and snacks, as well as a resource list of organizations that offer food pantries, job assistance and addiction recovery services. Though still in its infancy, the coalition has assisted 407 individuals, 40% of whom are children.
Butler conceded that Operation Roof is a short-term relief effort that doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness. HCCC’s goal is to help the unhoused by securing permanent housing.
- Phase II. To that end, the coalition soon will implement the second phase of its program, Path to Home, which will provide up to three months of housing for residents identified through Operation Roof. In addition to longer-term housing, the program will provide one-on-one case management to help individuals overcome the causes of housing insecurity.
- Phase III. Ultimately, HCCC plans to launch Restoration Village, a long-term, in-depth initiative that will provide up to two years of housing. Program participants also will receive extensive services and case management to help them develop sustainable financial practices, thereby increasing their chances of achieving long-term housing stability.
Butler, who is the organization’s only paid staff member, said long-term, affordable housing is a great need in Cherokee County — the county doesn’t even have an emergency shelter — and few resources exist to meet this need. HCCC is privately funded through donations from the founding churches, individuals, fundraising events, other churches and nonprofit civic and community organizations.
For more information about HCCC and how you can support the organization’s mission, visit www.homelesscoalitioncherokee.org.
– Tricia Grindel is a writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience. She retired from Kennesaw State University in December 2022 after teaching in the communication field for 21 years.