After two years of instability, one Cobb family found their permanent home this Christmas.
Ravin O’Bannon and her daughters, Ava and Aria, were evicted from their home in April 2021, after O’Bannon lost her job in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“I held onto my apartment for as long as I could,” O’Bannon said. “It’s expensive to be homeless.”
The three stayed in hotels for a while before the girls went to stay with their grandparents. O’Bannon bounced around various short-term shelters: friends’ homes, her car, and eventually, a temporary housing program through Marietta-based nonprofit Center for Family Resources.
O’Bannon applied for a new program through Open Doors, an Atlanta-based organization that works in tandem with leasing offices, nonprofits, and organizations that are a part of the Cobb Continuum of Care charged by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, like the Center for Family Resources, to connect homeless and housing insecure people in the metro-Atlanta area to stable housing.
She was accepted to Open Doors’ Cobb County Multi-Unit Acquisition Initiative, which expects to connect 200 homeless households in Cobb County — like O’Bannon’s — to stable housing in the next year.
Open Doors also operates a Housing Support Navigation Program, connecting 200 housing insecure households in the metro-Atlanta area to steady housing.
What is ‘Housing Insecurity?’
Open Doors uses the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s definitions of homelessness and housing insecurity. To be considered homeless by HUD, you have to be physically unsheltered, or in a place entirely unfit for permanent housing, like a car or a shelter. Housing insecurity includes a much larger swath of the population: those living in hotels, with friends, or who are just one missed paycheck away from eviction.
“Just that one step away — a hair’s breadth away — from literally living unsheltered on the streets, or in their car, or that type of thing,” said Matt Hurd, executive director for Open Doors.
Hurd said it’s almost impossible to estimate the number of housing insecure households in Cobb County. That’s because many of them are “hidden homeless,” according to Open Doors Development Director and Deputy Director Kim Wolfe.
“They won’t show up at shelters,” said Wolfe. “They’re really hard to track.”
The Georgia Department of Education — which tracks many housing insecure students as “homeless” by their definition, different from HUD’s — maintains data illustrating the extent of homelessness among students’ and their families.
Melanie Kagan, CEO of the Center for Family Resources, said there were just under 1,500 kids in the Cobb County School District and about 500 kids in Marietta City Schools who were considered homeless last year, by the DOE’s standards.
“You’re looking at almost 2,000 students, and that’s only enrolled students. So they may have siblings that are not yet school-aged. Then you add a parent or two for each of those children,” Kagan said. “You’re easily looking at 3,000-plus people in Cobb County who are currently, I would say, either unhoused or housing unstable.”
The Cobb County Multi-Unit Acquisition Initiative is funded by the county through a federal $500,000 American Rescue Plan Act grant, according to Kagan.
She said there is still more that local government can, and should, be doing to fight housing insecurity and homelessness in Cobb.
“There is a big disagreement across our county government about what the answer is. And I think they’re waiting for some magical, golden ticket answer,” Kagan said. “What I would like to see is just action for some time. There’s been a lot of talk, but there’s very little action behind it.”
Tax credits, creating partnerships with developers that build low income housing, and moving toward a universal zoning code in the county are a few of the steps Kagan thinks could be taken to move Cobb in the right direction.
“We’ve seen just a general lack of willingness to pull the trigger on some of these projects,” said Kagan.
Wolfe said Cobb has been particularly challenging for Open Doors to work in because there are not enough affordable housing units.
‘A Basic Human Right’
Open Doors’ mission is to reduce barriers to housing for the housing insecure and homeless by serving as a liaison between leasing agents and potential tenants, and providing a safety net for both parties.
“Typically, when someone is walking off the street or searching on the internet to be able to find a unit, they have to meet approval criteria set by the management company, which often includes credit checks, incometorent ratios, making sure that folks haven’t had a lot of evictions or criminal histories,” said Hurd. “But with Open Doors, we’re able to get those approval criteria either waived or reduced, so that people can be approved and can get apartments or houses, when normally they couldn’t.”
Open Doors mitigates the risk for property partners by serving as a human and sometimes financial resource for tenants. In the last 10 years, the organization has helped place 11,000 individuals into secure housing, with an over 95% success rate.
“The vast majority of households that we place get housed and stay housed past their first 12-month lease term,” said Hurd. “That’s the period of time, really between month six and month 12, where a household is most likely to get evicted.”
One of the most important parts of Open Doors’ placements is allowing families choice in where they live — something they may never have had before. That gives the families a greater sense of
dignity, Hurd said, and reaffirms Open Doors’ belief that housing is “a basic human right.”
“Everyone deserves to be able to have a place where they can live permanently, safely, and be able to use that as a foundation where on which they pursue their dreams and goals with their families,” said Hurd.
O’Bannon, beaming with appreciation, said she is “very grateful” to Open Doors for giving her and her kids that chance. In December, O’Bannon graduated from trade school. She recently started a new job, working as an assistant in a doctor’s office. Her kids, who attend elementary school in the Cobb County School District, were surprised with their new home on Christmas morning.
“It’s been really nice to be able to have our own space after not for so long,” said O’Bannon. “When I told them this was our house, they were so happy. They just kept saying ‘Thanks for the new house Mommy.’”
To see the full article, visit the MDJonline.com webpage here.