A few weeks ago, Zachary Appier lost his home.
It wasn’t a big house or a cozy apartment. Appier’s makeshift abode — his one and only prized possession — was a Schwinn Stingray Chopper Bike, which he’d ridden around Warner Robins and Centerville in a neon yellow vest for nearly 10 years.
The bike was Appier’s escape. It allowed him to pedal around town, and even on trips up and down the eastern seaboard, when he had no physical shelter to call his own.
Appier, 30, has been homeless for more than a decade. He lost his job in 2006 and hasn’t been steadily employed since.
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Until his bike was stolen, Appier spent countless nights curled up beside it, a tarp draped over the steering wheel his only protection from the elements.
Homelessness isn’t as visible in Houston County as it is in big cities like Atlanta, said Brandon Miller, chair of the Houston County Human Needs Coalition. Many think of the suburban county as an upper-middle class enclave rich with resources, he said.
In Houston County, the homeless lurk in the shadows, hiding in plain sight.
Most of the local homeless residents don’t congregate on street corners or wear dirty clothes, Miller said. They spend their days at work or school and their nights in cars or hotels.
“Here, it’s just a little bit different,” he said. “It’s just hard to recognize.”
Miller doesn’t want the county to ignore the issue any longer. He’s working with dozens of community partners to tackle the issue head-on.
The first step, he said, is to spread awareness about the scope of the problem.
“The county is still learning how to take care of this population,” Miller said.
‘They’re living somewhere, but not their own homes’
It’s easy to pretend homelessness isn’t a problem in Houston County, because the population is largely invisible, said Warner Robins Mayor Randy Toms.
“We tend to just kind of put our head in the sand and pretend that we don’t have a homeless situation,” he said.
A few camp out on the streets or in the woods, Toms said, but many spend their nights in hotels, in their cars or at relatives’ houses while they scramble to find a permanent place to stay.
“They’re living somewhere, but not their own homes,” he said.
It wasn’t until Toms became mayor that he realized how big of an impact homelessness had on his community.
Nearly 400 Houston County students are currently homeless, according to Barbara Jahnke, homeless liaison for the Houston County school district. And that number is on the rise. The district counted 210 homeless students in 2015-2016, 300 in 2016-2017 and 327 in 2017-2018.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001 defines homeless youth as individuals “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
Jahnke doesn’t know if more students are homeless now than in the past. But she said increased awareness has helped school staff better identify students who aren’t sleeping in their own beds each night.
More attention to the issue has also motivated the county to do a better job of counting its adult homeless population, Miller said.
Houston County has participated in the national Point-in-Time count each January since 2017. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative tracks the number of homeless residents throughout the county in a given week, though it only accounts for homeless individuals who consent to participate in a survey.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs counted 49 homeless persons in 2017 and 67 in 2018, including both sheltered and unsheltered individuals. Miller expects that number to be even higher this year.
He and a group of volunteers spent the last week of January surveying homeless residents across the county, handing out blankets at each stop.
It’s difficult to estimate the size of Houston County’s homeless population, because many without homes do a good job of hiding it, said Nicole Rosser, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Houston County. Her organization provides temporary housing to homeless families who have fallen on hard times and need an extra boost to get back on their feet.
When people think about homelessness, they often imagine panhandlers on the side of the road, Rosser said. Her clients don’t typically fit that image.
They could be your colleague at work, your fellow member at church or your child’s classmate at school, she said.
A divorce, a death in the family or a job loss can upend a household living paycheck to paycheck, Rosser said. Nearly 50 percent of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover an unexpected $400 emergency expense, a 2017 Federal Reserve Board survey found.
Even those with steady jobs can find eviction notices on their front doors, Rosser said. Warner Robins has one of the highest eviction rates of any midsized U.S. city, according to new data released by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
The city of 75,000 evicts residents from about 11 out of every 100 renter homes. The national average is 2.3 evictions for every 100 renter homes.
Houston County’s median household income is on par with the Georgia average, hovering just under $56,000. But a shortage of affordable housing and a high cost of living can make it difficult for working-class residents to pay their bills, Rosser said.
The median monthly housing cost for homeowners with a mortgage is $1,217, according to Census Bureau data. The average rent is $882. In Bibb County, homeowners pay an average of $1,180 a month and the median rent is $774.
Gaps in income between the county’s highest and lowest earners often go overlooked, she added.
The county’s largest employer, Robins Air Force Base, employs more than 22,000 military members and civilians. Its annual federal payroll was $1.38 billion in fiscal 2017.
The median household income in census tract 0206, where the base is located, was $68,036 in 2016, according to Data USA. In neighboring tract 0204, the median income was only $18,171.
“There’s a huge gap,” Rosser said.
And those living paycheck to paycheck can fall through the cracks.
Getting help before it’s too late
Houston County offers a host of resources for the homeless, but they rarely get the help they need before it’s too late, Rosser said.
“It’s great to have programs that provide services for homeless families, but I think the greatest need is prevention so that families don’t necessarily get into this situation,” Rosser said.
Many of Rosser’s clients know they’re falling behind on bills months before they receive an eviction notice, but are either unaware of the available resources or too embarrassed to seek them out.
Rosser encourages her clients to research community services early on. She also hopes Houston County will focus more on prevention, instead of offering aid when people have already lost their homes.
Food pantries, soup kitchens and clothes closets help, Rosser said, but they don’t solve the problem.
“What happens when that person needs that same resource the next month and the next month?” Rosser said. “We have to look at, what are we giving our families and what are we providing them (so) that they’re going to gain some type of self-sufficiency and be able to take care of self and family and not just depend on agencies and churches in the community to provide their needs?”
‘It’s easier for us just to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist’
For years, Houston County has largely ignored its homeless population, Toms said.
The problem isn’t as pronounced as it is in Bibb County, where DCA counted 310 homeless individuals in January 2017, 174 of whom were unsheltered. Though most of Houston County’s homeless sleep with a roof over their heads, Toms said, “it’s still worse than most people want to admit.”
“It’s easier for us just to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist than to acknowledge the problem,” he said. “And then you have to deal with it.”
Toms has been there. Before taking office in 2014, he didn’t realize the homeless population spanned beyond the few panhandlers he’d occasionally pass on the street.
Now Toms can’t put the issue out of his mind. He thinks Miller and the Houston County Human Needs Coalition could be the county’s saving grace.
Miller first noticed gaps in community resources during meetings with his clients at the Houston County Career Center. He wanted to direct them to services but often didn’t know where to turn.
The coalition, started in 2016, aims to bring together representatives from all of the county’s community organizations and agencies so they can work together to better serve its homeless, veterans and low-income residents.
Coalition partners set out across Houston County during the recent homelessness survey to hand out blankets and gift bags to participants. On March 27, they’ll host a homelessness resource fair at Southside Baptist Church’s Pleasant Hill Campus, where they plan to offer free haircuts, health screenings, Veterans Affairs consultations, food and showers.
Miller wants to provide a more permanent solution, though. The county’s next big need, he said, is a homeless shelter.
Coalition member Margaret Flowers has been working for years to open Genesis Joy House, a transitional housing facility for female veterans in Warner Robins. After renovations of a donated facility are completed, the center will also offer job training center, mental health counseling and adult education classes to both men and women.
Miller has his own plans to house the homeless. He hopes to soon open a transitional housing shelter.
Once Miller works out all the legal and logistical details, his shelter will provide much more than a warm place to stay. He’ll bring in Houston County’s wealth of resources so his clients can leave the shelter on steady footing.
Miller expects each client to leave the shelter with a job and stable housing.
“We’re gonna help you with that, but we want to teach you how to do that on your own,” Miller said. “’Cause if we’re not teaching you how to do it, once you’re out, you’re just going to be right back to us in three months.”
Miller expects the shelter to attract even more homeless people to Houston County.
He doesn’t think that’s a reason not to build it.
“If there’s a problem, you fix it and take care of it,” Miller said. “If the number gets bigger, you just get another shelter.”
With a more accurate count of the homeless population, the county will be able to allocate resources more effectively, he said.
Those resources can’t come soon enough for Zachary Appier. He hopes to find a job soon so he can start paying rent on his own place.
Appier is thankful for those in the community who haven’t forgotten about him.
“There are some people here in Warner Robins who do have that kindness, who do notice us, who will step out their way,” he said.
But even in his bright yellow vest, Appier often feels invisible on the streets of Houston County. He doesn’t mind keeping to himself, but he wishes others wouldn’t judge him before taking the time to hear his story.
“Some of the city wants to ignore the fact that the homeless are here,” he said.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.