With Christmas Eve temperatures predicted well below freezing, dozens of homeless people packed the Clayton County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday night to demand the county do something to help them.

Many of the residents came early and brought their babies and small children, hoping to speak during public comment at the end of the meeting. Since June, only ten slots at two minutes each are allotted for commissioners to hear from the public.

The people said they are upset because the county cut off applications for relief at 10,000. One woman said county employees took away the laptops that applicants were using before they could finish entering their information at a packed event.

Crystal Perry of Melanated Pearl, which recently was awarded a county contract to process those 10,000 applications for help, and which also was awarded a grant to further the nonprofit’s work with people living in extended stay motels and on the street, wept as she listened to the people she works with address the commissioners.

She thanked the BOC for its support of her organization.

Crystal Perry of Melanated Pearl. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

“On November 9, our organization was selected through special election to help with the distribution of rental funds,” she said. “People who are probably standing up behind me are some of the people who have been impacted by those funds, We started on the 19th, and we placed 150 citizens who identify as homeless or displaced.”

Applause broke out.

“That is the county again working with the small nonprofit,” Perry said. “The problem is, on yesterday, the first 30 days were up. And so the first set of families, 17, were put out, not because we don’t have funding, because of the complexities of this process. So I’m really here, just as we continue to work through this, to ask for grace on behalf of our citizens. The Neighborly application is not ADA-compliant. There is no adaptability for seniors. We have people who don’t have e-mail. You have to have an e-mail. Who are illiterate. We have a literacy problem here. Helping somebody complete this application in one sitting can take up to five hours.

“We had a wonderful three-day event,” she continued. “We had 4,000 people and 40 computers. It’s not just Melanated Pearl. All the nonprofits are all hands on deck. Melanated Pearl is an all-volunteer organization, so I’m very proud to say that the people we have served, it’s because the people behind me are helping each other complete applications.”

The audience clapped.

“People right now opened their rooms so that mothers did not have to sleep in their cars with children. And so, we are here not for conflict, because, as I said to them, if you’re displaced, they don’t know who their commissioner is. People are moving. But we are here collectively today so that you know that the need is great.”

“Thank you so much for what you do,” Chairman Jeff Turner said.

“I, too, want to say thank you so very much, District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin added. “From Day One when I met you, your organization has done exactly what it set out to do. So I’m glad that organizations like yours was finally able to receive that money and get it into the hands. I can tell you that, every time I received a phone call and I sent someone to you, there was a response, and I appreciate that.”

Before the meeting, Perry said, someone had asked Perry to tell her story to commissioners. Instead, Perry encouraged her to tell her own story.

“Treat us like you would treat your own family members”

One woman tore into Turner, who she accused of “smirking” on the dais.

Juanita White said she represented Melanated Pearl. “What’s upsetting me right now is, I’m 39 years old, from Miami, Florida. I’ve been down here since I was about 12. So, uh, some of the chairmen sitting here right now were in my elementary schools. And the facial expressions, when she came up to speak, some of us are sleeping in our cars in Clayton County, was pretty nasty— Yeah. It was nasty. Speaking of you. Because, uh, I remember coming up with you, And I don’t remember you being so nasty. But moving forward. Some of us are sleeping in our cars, and I watched some of these family members leave, crying, hurt. Christmas is around the corner. So while we have smirks on our face, let’s remember that if this was your family member or your grandkids, you would help them.”

“That’s right,” someone in the audience called as applause broke out.

“So before you take from somebody else and sit here, being so cocky, I remember when you were down here, sir. So treat us like you would treat your own family members.” She pointed to the back to the auditorium, “Like we have these young kids back here? They have babies. Help them. You know what I mean? Like she said. When we were in Clayton County, trying to get our applications done, your staff was rushing us. Taking the laptops from us. Not allowing us to assist each other at that time. They were rushing to leave.

“So if Clayton County is for Clayton County, let’s act like it. ‘Cause it don’t feel like it.”

The audience applauded again.

“I’ve been sitting back here watching everybody’s face,” she said. “Smirk all you want to, but I’ve been sitting back here watching everybody’s face. I also stood up front and watched one of your officers gawk at a young lady. He couldn’t even pay attention to what was going on behind him because he was so busy trying to look her up and down.

“So. Christmas is Sunday. If y’all can help this lady—” pointing to Perry—”this lady came out with a truck and clothed us. And clothed people’s babies,” she said as her voice broke. “And fed people’s babies. This is not a joke.”

The crowd applauded.

“It’s not a joke. So while you up here cutting people off, and tying us up, stop being cocky because you—”

“Your time is up,” Turner said at the end of her two-minute slot.”

“And have a good day, Mr. Turner.”

“You, too,” he replied.

Larisha Banks, who said she also was with Melanated Pearl, spoke next.

“I was in a shelter before she [Perry] came along, the organization came along. I have four kids. And for us to be noticed at the last minute, with us being in the extended stay that she helped put us in, I don’t think that was right. Because people have kids, Christmas is, like the lady said, the holidays is right around the corner. I think that we should’ve had something, we should have been known ahead of time, about this special with people having kids…. Even if that was the case, there’s no shelters out here for women and children. It’s only one shelter that take women and children out in Georgia. I don’t understand why it’s more shelters for men than it is for women and kids. That’s unacceptable. And I really appreciate that she did come along because I was at the end of the street in a shelter. And she [Perry] helped me and my four kids, and she put us in, like the lady said, she did come, she clothes, she feeds, everything. So hopefully, I mean, you can find somewhere in your heart to do whatever it takes to get whatever assistance that families need. Thank you.”

Short-term crisis, long-term response

Regina Deloach (right) talks with Drew Andres (left) and Mickey Garber (center) about meeting the needs of homeless Clayton County residents (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Last winter, during another deadly freeze, District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis paid out of his own pocket to rent Soy Events Center because, he said, he felt compelled to do something. Volunteers, including Deloach, Drew Andrews, and many others, showed up daily with hot meals and fast food, as well as bedding and personal care items, and the event center’s owners were scrupulous about sanitizing surfaces daily.

But everyone acknowledged the solution was a temporary one. The shopping center owner said it would kick out Soy Events if they continued to host homeless people in their rented space. People talked about the county needing to provide a permanent facility for residents who find themselves unhoused in the dead of winter.

One year later, no such plan—temporary or permanent—exists.

The Clayton Crescent asked Police Chief Kevin Roberts why the county didn’t open existing public facilities, like its many recreation centers, as emergency warming shelters. Roberts said that, in order for a facility to serve as a shelter, it has to meet certain requirements.

During hurricanes and other weather emergencies, the American Red Cross provides volunteers and staff who are trained in disaster services and shelter management and sets up shelters in suitable buildings like community centers and schools. It’s possible that the county could partner with the American Red Cross, which provides free training for local volunteers, and figure out which county facilities might be suitable warming centers when temperatures dip below freezing. Their website also offers tips for surviving a winter storm.

Another possible resource might be Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers. CERT is a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that offers general disaster response training.

The Clayton Crescent has asked Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services:

  • whether it plans to set up warming stations this weekend
  • whether the county could use recreation centers or schools as temporary warming centers
  • whether the county could partner with American Red Cross, which is experienced in disaster services and shelter management, to run the warming centers
  • whether CCFES could coordinate with Melanated Pearl and other groups serving unhoused people to get their volunteers Red Cross-certified in disaster response and basic first aid/CPR

Building a dedicated shelter facility to serve Clayton County residents would likely require a large, ongoing funding source, such as a SPLOST fund that voters would have to approve, as well as government and private grants.

Development Authority Chair Regina Deloach, who is active in aiding homeless people in Clayton County, said many families lived at the Red Roof Inn, but that the City of Morrow had kicked them out due to a city code limiting how long people can stay. She said one of the ways the county can help stabilize families and individuals caught in the extended-stay cycle is to get them into Clayton Works and upgrade their skills so that they can find higher-paying jobs.

We’ve asked Turner for information about pop-up warming shelters and will update with more information as it becomes available.

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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