Originally created 08/08/99

System will link agencies



A $670,000 computer system linking Augusta agencies serving the homeless will help the organizations solve an elusive problem -- counting their clients.

Better tracking will improve chances for grants and sharpen agencies' focus in aiding clients, said Gary Billingsley, a former president of the Augusta Task Force for the Homeless. The task force was founded in 1986.

The system, which should be operating by October, was purchased through a Housing and Urban Development SuperNOFA grant.

Area estimates of homeless people range from between 5,000 and 6,000, but exact figures are difficult to pin down. Clients now can move from agency to agency, causing inflated statistics.

"Everybody says, `Nah, Nah, you couldn't be serving this many people. It couldn't be this big of a problem,"' said Dr. Billingsley, a pediatrician.

The software will give agencies an accurate count of how many are served during a year. The 25 agencies in the task force will share information without violating confidentiality, he said.

The new computer system "is going to be the biggest single thing to impact homelessness in Augusta" in recent years, Dr. Billingsley said.

But it is not the only change. A day care center for children of homeless families will open this fall, probably at the Salvation Army on Greene Street. The Junior League has joined in supporting the effort, he said.

Having "no day care puts a major obstacle in front of these women who want to work," Dr. Billingsley said.

The Interfaith Hospitality Network, a ministry that shelters recently homeless families in church facilities, moved its day center last month from Hill Baptist Church West on Skinner Mill Road to a freshly renovated house on Ridge Road. The house is owned by Hillcrest Baptist Church.

"We are really fortunate to have the day facility more into a home setting," said Dr. Billingsley, founder of the network in Augusta. "We didn't have a bus line, and now we are on a line right in front of Hillcrest."

The house has white siding and dark-blue shutters. A custom-made table with a hunter-green Formica top seats 14 -- "with a couple of high chairs around it," said Amanda Gray, network director and Dr. Billingsley's successor as president of the homeless task force.

Network families sleep at one of 13 partner churches, one week at a time, and are shuttled to the center for meals and showers. Mrs. Gray coordinates counseling and other services from her office in the center.

She is assisted by about 1,000 volunteers, ranging from hairdressers and birthday cake bakers to on-call drivers.

Besides the shuttle, drivers transport clients wherever they need to go, whether it is job interviews or doctor appointments.

The 2-year-old ministry is poised to reach another goal, a new van.

"We are hoping to get some funding," Dr. Billingsley said.

Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.