Hinesville’s Homeless Prevention Program celebrated 16 years last month. Program Coordinator Daisy Jones said her department of three had modest beginnings, but it now networks with dozens of churches, civic organizations and service agencies dedicated to helping the homeless and hungry in Hinesville and Liberty County.
“This program started in 1998 and was known as Next Step,” Jones said. “(It) precipitated from (Assistant City Manager) Kenneth Howard going out and noticing people living on the street and hearing about people living behind the old Winn Dixie (now Goodies). He approached the mayor at that time about applying for a grant called ‘Next Step.’ That’s where the first program name came from. The grant funded 10 units for the city, (which allowed the city to) house people temporarily and get them off the streets.”
Howard referred to the Homeless Prevention Program as something “near and dear” to his heart. He said he started researching grants for the program after an elected official, whose name he can’t remember, asked him about a man sleeping overnight in the gazebo near the Coca Cola Plant. Back then, that area was still heavily wooded, he said.
“That homeless man sleeping in the gazebo was just the tip of the iceberg,” Howard said. “I got to looking around in that wooded area and found a regular tent city back there. During the winter, these people were climbing on top of the Winn Dixie, sleeping next to the furnace. Others were living in abandoned mobile homes. … We put all that in the grant application.”
Howard said that grant was $211,000 for three years. After the grant expired, he said the mayor and city council at the time decided to fund the program, but they reduced funding to only five units. In 2006, additional federal grants were obtained, which allowed the city to get 10 more units.
Jones said the grants and a total of 15 housing units enable the Homeless Prevention Program to provide temporary housing, rental and utility assistance, case management and other supportive services for up to 24 months while homeless clients work toward self-sufficiency. Howard said the success of the program is measured in part by the surprise of some residents to learn the community has homeless people.
“Sometimes I have someone ask me, ‘Do we really have homeless people in our city? So why don’t we see them on the street?’” Howard said. “I tell them, ‘Thank you,’ because that means the program is working. Yes, we still have some homeless folks still living in places that are not really inhabitable, but that’s what the program is for. … When we take someone from a homeless state to being a homeowner, that’s very impactful to our community.”
Jones, who is a retired Army officer, came into the program as its coordinator in 2010 after working fulltime at her church for five years. During that time, she saw several homeless people come into her church looking for food and assistance. That interaction made her want to help homeless people on a much wider scale, she said.
“When I saw the job opening here, it really pulled at my heart,” she said. “My intent has always been to help people. Everything I’d learned as an officer in the military about how to manage people and events — I knew I could use it here, but it was more than that. We’re not just sheltering people; we’re trying to prevent homelessness.”
She said that’s why they built a network in the community where they could collaborate and provide the help the homeless and hungry need. Jones said she is amazed by the number of organizations and people who really want to help other people.
Jones said her small staff handles 500-600 applications for temporary housing every year. She said each applicant is screened to determine if they are indeed homeless in accordance with the definition of homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Through this definition and grant guidelines, she said the city has a standardized assessment and screening for homeless services.
“A client has to be literally homeless in order to qualify for this program,” she said. “It can’t be, ‘I’m planning to move,’ or ‘I want help moving.’ There are some who are trying to get into public housing. We provide them with the information and assistance as much as we can with those kinds of connections.
“We operate under a ‘housing first’ principle. That means any barrier or problem that families have that led to their homelessness is dealt with second. We house them first, then we go back and help them reduce or eliminate those barriers.”
Jones noted that many times, the barrier is simply financial planning, so part of their program includes classes on budget planning. They also assist with job placement, enabling their clients to work their way out of deep poverty to self-sufficiency.
She said the city also has a hotel/motel voucher program. Because the city does not have an emergency shelter, they partner with motel owners who allow the city to send homeless clients with a voucher authorizing them to stay in the motel. Jones emphasized the program’s goal is to get people off the street first.
With assistance from the network of organizations like the Liberty County Homeless Coalition, United Way and Manna House, Jones has organized and supervised a countywide homeless count and taken part in food drives and annual events, such as the Good Friday March for the Homeless. She is inspired and grateful that so many in the community are willing to support the city’s Homeless Prevention Program and the organizations that help and feed the homeless and hungry.
“We want to make someone’s day better,” Jones said. “We don’t want to re-traumatize them. We want to treat them nicely when they come in, regardless where they come from or what their situation is in life.”