Pawnbroker ordinance amendment passed

by Chari Sutherland

It was standing-room only at the April 6 commission meeting.  Many small business owners were in attendance to protest a proposed amendment to an ordinance governing pawnbrokers. 

The amendment, proposed by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department (ACCPD), will require all pawnbrokers to begin using an electronic ticketing system, to hold items an additional 20 days before allowing them to be sold and to require customers to show picture identification before pawning items. 

 During public comments, Lori Reeves, of the Athens Pawn Shop, asked that the commission vote no on the amendment.  “This (amendment) will bring dramatic changes for the livelihood of at least a dozen small businesses,” she said.  She said the current ordinance is sufficient.  “Most of the stolen property is sold on the streets by criminals, not in pawnshops.”  Perry Reeves said many of their customers repeatedly pawn the same items just to get some extra money, then return to pick up the items. 

Though his business has required that customers show identification for forty-two years, Reeves was concerned about customers losing more confidentiality.    

The amendment was suggested in writing by Chief of Police, Joseph Lumpkin, on February 4.  In his detailed report to the commissioners, he requested that pawnbrokers “electronically report their transactions on a daily basis rather than by weekly paper document.”  The report also said Georgia law authorizes the police department to request such a change.  Lumpkin also wrote in the report that there has been an increase in burglaries in the last three years, with small electronics being the most common items stolen.  

ACCPD will be able to track items received in pawnshops from their headquarters through an internet database, rather than sending a detective out to collect copies of pawn tickets and manually looking through all of them.  In November, there were 1,549 paper pawn tickets, according to Lumpkin’s report.

On the opposite side of the issue, many pawnbrokers complained at the commission meeting that new regulations will make their work more tedious.  Thornton said being required to take a picture and write a detailed description of each piece of jewelry will require more time.   He said that official should consider that many of the dealers take in only certain types of jewelry, so there will often be over 100 individual and identical pieces of jewelry.  “A lot of things not adequately thought out,” he said. 

“I’m not thrilled about having to spend one to two more hours a day meeting new guidelines,” said Dale Duncan of Duncan’s Fine Jewelry on Atlanta Highway.   He said some dealers may have to spend about 30 minutes more on an item just to enter it into the system. 

“This will cause people who do a large portion of buying to probably do illegal things,” he said.  “They may be a day or two late entering their information or not enter it at all.”  To comply may require longer days or adding more labor, which will raise the dealer’s costs. 

All pawnbrokers were concerned about financing the new system.  Joe Thornton of Thornton’s Pawn Center on Lexington Avenue said the pawnbrokers weren’t given enough time to look over the proposed changes to the ordinance.  “You’re putting a financial burden on store owners,” he told the commission.  “The proposal doesn’t specify equipment we’d have to use.  We need more understanding of what’s being required.”

Lori Reeves said the extra $25 registration fee required each year and a $25 precious metal license for dealers that sell precious metals is “over and above what we already pay in (business license) fees.”

Though the commission did not specifically address the concerns about the extra fees or having to implement equipment/services (computer, digital camera and internet service) that some dealers may not already have, it was pointed out that ACCPD will purchase the software system for $11,000 through the police department’s general fund budget.  

Commissioner Kelly Girtz said Chief Lumpkin’s request for the amendment “is judious”.  “I think this is going to bring us in line with the state and allow us to communicate with other jurisdictions as well.” 

Girtz motioned to approve the amendment.  It was seconded and all commissioners voted in favor. 

With the passing of this ordinance amendment, ACCPD joins police departments of Alpharetta, Cartersville, Cobb County and Gwinnett County in requiring an electronic recording system.  Chief Lumpkin’s report said, “These agencies report that electronic pawn reporting has improved efficiency and enabled the agencies to recover stolen property while identifying burglary suspects on a regular basis.” 

Now approximately a month until the May 24 deadline of full implementation, Thornton’s Pawn Center isn’t yet prepared for the change.  “I haven’t started implementing any of it and I won’t until May first,” Joe Thornton said.

Today at Athens Pawn, owner Perry Reeves isn’t close to being ready.  Since he’s still using handwritten tickets, he doesn’t own a computer or have internet access.  Dale Duncan at Duncan’s Fine Jewelry said he’s logged onto the site and registered to use it.

New law may affect Athens pawnbrokers

 by Chari Sutherland

Pawnbrokers in Athens may have new rules to follow in a few months.  On February18, the Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners discussed a proposal to amend an ordinance affecting pawnbrokers and second-hand dealers.  The proposal was sent to the County Commission by the Athens-Clarke County police department on February 4.  It requested that all pawnbrokers institute a new electronic system of recording the property they receive into their stores. 

If the ordinance is amended, it will require all pawnbrokers to begin using an electronic ticketing system, to hold items an additional 20 days before allowing them to be sold and to require customers to show picture identification before pawning items.  Police will be able to track items from their headquarters through an internet database, rather than going out to collect copies of pawn tickets. 

Commissioner Kathy Hoard said she agreed with the proposal’s intentions, particularly the changes requiring that those pawning items show identification and increasing the holding period from ten days to 30.      

“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do the right thing wouldn’t want to adopt this legislation,” Hoard said. 

Mayor Heidi Davidson invited comments from the audience.  There were none.

A vote on this item will occur at the Commission meeting on April 6.  At that time, the public will be offered another chance to comment.

Athens community confused about healthcare reform

 by Chari Sutherland

Sean Bokelman, a local restaurant manager, doesn’t have health insurance.  The last time he had insurance was three years ago when he was still covered under his parents’ plan.  Patricia Porterfield, a hairdresser in the Athens area, buys a personal plan. 

“I’m self employed and it’s the only way I can get insurance,” she said.  “Either I pay or I have no insurance.” 

With the recent passing of the healthcare bill, many questions still linger for those in positions like Bokelman and Porterfield.  The most pressing questions are: will insurance costs be lower?  Will self-employed persons be positively affected by this reform? With the national mandate that every American must have insurance, who will monitor this? 

White has devoted several pages on their website to answering the public’s questions about this reform.  The site states that insurance premiums will not go up, nor will co-pays or deductibles.  Also, those who are self-employed will have access to cheaper insurance through insurance exchanges. 

An opinion poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation conducted in December, 2009 found that 39 percent felt the health reform bill would not make any real changes at all, 37 percent felt there would be changes for the worse and 22 percent felt there would be change for the better.  An ABC News/Washington Post Poll conducted in November, 2009 found that 55 percent of persons polled considered themselves to have a “good basic understanding” of the changes being proposed for the health care system.  Another 44 percent felt the changes proposed were too complicated to understand.  However, a Gallup poll in that same month found that 36 percent of those polled felt changes in the healthcare system would make their personal healthcare situation worse.  Only 26 percent felt it would improve. 

On top of this, many in the insurance industry remain in the dark about what the reform will really mean for the self-employed or anyone else for that matter. 

“I feel just about as clueless as everyone else,” said Dustin Rector, an insurance agent at Baumwald Insurance.  “The bill is very vague.  Seems like (its) impact will be very delayed.”  Some of the proposals in the bill will not take effect until 2014.   

Debbie Kinard, of Blue Cross Blue Shield was unsure of the effectiveness of the healthcare reform.  She said no one is addressing the basic problem: increasing costs.  “We have to stop the runaway freight train of costs going up.”   She said there is a common misconception that health insurance companies get rich from premiums they offer.  In fact, she said, health insurance companies only make about three percent profit.  Pharmaceutical companies make ten to 15 percent. 

There’s a domino effect driving costs, she said.  For example, if the cost of needles increase, then bed sheets increase, then doctors’ leases increase, and thus hospital costs increase.  “The general public doesn’t understand that.” 

Windy Manders, an insurance agent with Chastain and Associates, said her company is selling more individual policies due to consumers losing coverage at work or losing jobs.  She pointed out that the cost of doctors and hospitals serving the uninsured drives up medical costs.  “The hospitals and doctors are going to make up cost of seeing the uninsured somewhere.” 

Dustin Rector of  Baumwald Insurance agreed.  “It’s not uncommon for a premium to go up at least ten percent every year.”  His company has sold less individual policies this year because of the shear cost of them.

Manders said people have to remember insurance companies are a business, too.  “If they’re paying out more money than you’re paying in, they can’t make a profit.”  If they can’t stay in business, they can’t provide insurance to the public.

 One proposal of the reform bill is the use of insurance exchanges for the self-employed to find good rates on insurance by being grouped with other self-employed persons buying insurance.  Neither Manders, Rector or Kinard could elaborate on how the exchange system might work.  Rector offered an explanation of why they could be beneficial.  The theory, he said, is if the healthy are combined in a group with the unhealthy, it will bring down the premiums of the unhealthy and everyone’s cost will meet in the middle.  “If the healthy are paying $100 a month on insurance and the unhealthy are paying $600 a month, when you group them all together, they might all pay $300.”  He said this lessens the risk for the insurance companies.   

“I don’t see the healthcare bill lowering costs for us,” said Brandt Halbach, Executive Director of Georgia Neurological Surgery, a practice located on Old W. Broad Street in downtown Athens.  This practice’s patients include 30 percent on Medicaid or Medicare.  Another nine percent are self paying or privately insured.

Halbach said the economy of healthcare is different than any other business.  When you go to a store and buy a basket of goods, the store gets their payment on the spot.  It’s not that way in healthcare, he said.  After the provider collects the co-payment from the patient, the bulk of the expenses are sought from the insurance company.  It can take up to 60 to 100 days to get payment.  If the insurance company denies payment, doctors often appeal.  “We need personnel to follow up on these things,” he said.  “Those costs are in the system.”

As far as the mandate that all Americans must have insurance or be fined, that concerns many. 

Manders questioned, “If a person without insurance couldn’t afford it to begin with, how are they going to afford it after a mandate?” 

Kinard and Bokelman were concerned about citizen rights. 

“If you take over health insurance and it is now run by the government, that’s the beginning of losing freedom of choice and self regulation,” Kinard said.  She also wondered how a mandate will be enforced.  However it is enforced will likely result in loss of some privacy she said.  “Are we going to have a national database so the ‘health police’ can come out and knock on your door?”

Bokelman said the idea of levying fines on those who remain uninsured “seems like a violation of my rights.  I get the point—if everyone’s covered it will be cheaper for everyone.  But to make it mandated…it blows my mind.  Especially considering the foundation of this country.”

In any case, Rector said his understanding of the new reform is that the changes will come about in several years.  “I really don’t know what’s wrong or what’s right with the bill,” he said.  “But what we have now isn’t working well either.”

Athens Farmer’s Market: Two Years Later

by Chari Sutherland

On Tuesday, Roots Farm and Cedar Grove Farm workers were preparing for participation in the Athens Farmer’s Market (AFM) opening on May11.  At Roots, Sara Callaway knelt in moist, black soil, and added lettuce seedlings for red cross lettuce.  At Cedar Grove, a worker used a pitchfork to toss natural compost into the garden where planting will begin.  With the opening of the AFM only seven weeks away, growers are busy tending their gardens. 

“It’s an interesting challenge to have food coming out early spring,” Callaway said, who is manager of the Roots Farm.  “We put a good amount of effort in planting things that grow fast with a 30- to 60-day turnaround.”  She said lettuces, radishes and arugula grow fast.  Onions, planted in the fall, will be ready by the market opening day.  After mid-April frost risk goes down and growers can pretty much plant anything, said Jay Payne, president of the AFM and owner of Cedar Grove Farm in Crawford, Georgia.

Farmer markets have been becoming more and more popular.  The USDA reported in August, 2009 that there were approximately 4,900 farmers markets operating nationwide, this includes 215 new markets added since 2008.

The interest in farmer’s markets is evidenced by the attendance level increases over the last two years that the AFM has been open. 

Payne said, “We had 1200 visitors on average per market last year for over 34,000 total.”  He hopes to see an increase in those numbers this year.  “I would like to think that the 20 farmers will feed at least 2000-3000 customers a week this season.”

Board member, Christy Jenkins, was instrumental in the upstart of the market.  She said when the market began in 2008 the goals were “ to establish a stable market with regular clientele, to establish consistency in presentation of products, and to make it so people are aware of the market in the area.”  

Craig Page of Promoting Local Agriculture and Cultural Experience (PLACE) was also involved in planning the AFM.  “There definitely had a learning curve the first year,” he said.

Payne said, “On our first day, we had 3000 people show up on Saturday.  It was a disaster.  We had this knot of people in one spot.”  Produce sold out in an hour, he said.  That indicated the AFM would be a great success.

Here are some statistics:

  • First year’s weekly patronage averaged 950 people per week
  • Second year’s weekly patronage averaged 1200 a week
  • At peak season, 1500 customers were the average.   
  • In the first year 11 farmers participated.  By the end of that year, there were 16.
  • There were 18 farmers the second year. 
  • This year, 30 farmers have applied.  Only 25 will be chosen for full-time slots and up to six more for part-time. 

“This is not a market where farmers can drop in anytime,” Payne said.  “Many farmers’ markets started and failed because they didn’t have a consistent level of produce.”   Growers must commit to either a “Full Membership” which entitles the grower to participate on all Saturdays.  This level of membership costs $400.  A “Full Membership Plus”, which costs $700, enables the grower to participate on all Saturdays and Tuesdays in the season.  Growers must be

Certified Naturally Grown, have farms must be located within the 26-county area around Athens and must submit to the philosophy, ‘If you don’t grow it, you can’t sell it.’

Callaway said the rates and requirements are reasonable. “If your production size is anything, you’re going to make at least $300 every week,” she said.  “That ends up being about $9000 for the season if its 29 weeks.”

Cutting out the middle man such as transport costs, has had two affects, Payne said.  Farmers are growing more product and the money they make is staying in the community. 

Growers in the AFM are usually small farmers who are cultivating gardens of around two or three acres. There are some with only a half acre and one with about 13 acres.  Because of their small size, most growers in the market tend not to be Certified Organic (a USDA managed program). Certified Naturally Grown is a type of organic or sustainable farming that “follows organic thinking”, Payne said, but costs less.  All growers in the AFM use natural materials or techniques, avoiding any synthetic products.

The market has several changes this year.  Payne said he hopes the Tuesday Downtown Market from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Little Kings Bar parking lot will bring in consumers who can’t normally come Saturday mornings, such as students and downtown workers.

In past years, AFM has only been accepting cash or checks.  This year, they have obtained an Electronic Benefits Transfer device (EBT) that will enable them to sell to  food stamp recipients.  These customers will be able to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards to purchase food.

Page said parking had been a problem.  After 2009, most of the kinks were worked out, he said.  “An upcoming problem we may face is space,” Craig said.  Payne said he hopes the AFM will acquire its own space in the next few years instead of renting.

As a grower, Callaway’s has found that she has to narrow down the diversity of produce she grows because buyers want the more common items. “People want butter head lettuce, for example.  Not speckled romaine, red romaine, or oak leaf.  They won’t buy them.”  In tomatoes, however, customers seem to like not just the red slicers but also pink and yellow varieties. 

Payne encourages the consumers to think differently about food varieties.  “The farmer’s market has varieties of things you can’t get in a grocery store because they don’t hold up as long.”  For instance, Cedar Grove alone will sell at least four different varieties of kale and three varieties of greens.  At the market there will be growers hawking blueberries, blackberries, kale, brocalli, lettuces, carrots, squashes, and various varieties of potatoes.  Cedar Grove’s most popular item is the purple hull, Texas pink-eye peas. 

Looking ahead, Page is hopeful that state laws will be relaxed to allow local meat and dairy producers to participate in the market.

Payne said he’d like to see the market have twice as many farmers in 10 years, feeding a community with more fresh, local, wholesome food, rather than produce that might travel thousands of miles before the consumer ever sees it.  “My vision was to create something lasting so people would say ‘They have a really great market in Athens’.” 

At the outset of this venture two years ago, Page said he’d hoped that the market would create a social space for the community to come together.  It has become that.  It has also had the effect of helping growers create personal relationships with customers.  “Because the farmers are there, consumers have confidence in our products,” Payne said.  

The Athens Farmer’s Market will run from May 11 to November 20 in Bishop Park at 705 Sunset Drive.  Saturday hours will be 8 to 12.  Tuesday’s Downtown Market hours will be 4 to 7.  See the Farmer’s Market website for more information,

Athens food bank operating above board

by Chari Sutherland

There was a bevy of activity at the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia last Wednesday- a busy day at the food bank since mid-week is usually the time food pantries restock their shelves, said Tonya Pass, Programs Coordinator.

The parking lot was full of vans and trucks, all from agencies that provide services in the community, such as emergency shelters or food pantries.  Large, hand trucks piled high with boxes of food were being loaded into vans.  Inside the warehouse, other “shoppers” (representatives from the agencies) were picking out food from bins and lower levels of the warehouse shelves. 

The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia is non-profit and serves a 14-county area.  It is located in Athens on Newton Bridge Road.  It is one of nine food banks in Georgia according to the Department of Human Resources website.  In total, the food bank supplies food to 240 partner agencies, all of which are nonprofit.  Sixty-five of those agencies are within the Athens-Clarke County area, including the Salvation Army and the Athens Homeless Shelter.  Documents and interviews indicated the food bank is operating well in the area they serve, with some minor problems.

Some findings were:

  • About 12% of  partner agencies are not completing required reports to the food bank in timely fashion
  • The food bank’s 2008 tax report was not accessible to the public
  • Oversight agencies and the food bank itself weren’t forthcoming with reports, sighting confidentiality or being unaware of compliance reports requested

Depending on the product, the food bank reports the use of the product and how many families served.  The food bank sends required monthly reports to the Department of Human Resources of the State of Georgia, the USDA and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).  By doing so, they are able to get more food items. 

Regarding the required monthly reports partner agencies have to give the food bank, George McGrady, Agency Relations Coordinator, said via email that reports are required by these government agencies to show who receives the food (income levels, age of recipients, employed/unemployed, etc).  Also, a temperature log is required to show prevention in loss of food and food safety.  Agencies must also keep a monthly meal calendar to help keep track of how many meals they served and which meals contained USDA products. 

McGrady said about 88% of the partner agencies are reporting on time and about another 5% are doing things properly and according to regulations.  There are a few agencies that are not complying by sending in their reports.  “We are trying to weed (them) out,” McGrady said. “We’re trying to find out if they want to continue to remain active and if so to make sure they get everything in order and keep it that way.”

Pass said the food bank reports to Feeding America, a national agency which oversees food banks, shelters and pantries that disburse food.  Calls to that agency for more information were unsuccessful.  The Feeding America communications representative, Keisha Miller, responded to queries via email that Feeding America could not comment on the operations of Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.   She wrote, “Feeding America’s information in regard to food bank ratings is confidential.”

Feeding America’ website did provide some information on numbers served, counties served and the like.  This information, however, was similar to all the information in the food bank’s 2009 annual report.  The pounds of food and the numbers of persons served are the same as listed in their tax report. 

The 2007 income tax statement was the most recent posted to the food bank’s website.  It lists their direct public support as over $7 million, government contributions (which includes grants) at over $34 thousand and total revenue at a little over $8 million.

The food bank has a regular staff of 18.   The number of Volunteers vary at the food bank.  Cynthia Griffith, Checkout Manager, said, “We could have at least 20 to 30 in a day.” 

Griffith, who has worked at the food bank for six years, said the food bank is able to help feed people who are in need at a better price.  They are able to shop for less money, she said.  As example, she pulled out a purchase order completed that morning.  The agency (unnamed for confidentiality) bought 97 pounds of food at a retail price of $145, but  only paid $14.22.  That was a savings of $131.28. 

In the smaller warehouse, connected to the main building which houses the administration offices, as well, shoppers come in to “shop”.  The food donated is sorted in the salvage room by category and expiration dates.  Then it is moved to the small warehouse in bins and boxes.  Representatives from agencies such as homeless shelters or food pantries come in any day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.   If they have a large order or don’t have time to pick out the food, agencies can order food online.  Online orders are processed in the large warehouse.  Orders must be picked up within 24 hours of the order being placed. 

The food bank also has special food programs offered to the community.  Food 2 Kids benefits school children.  “Counselors work with us, giving us the names of kids in need,” Griffith said.  “Every Thursday, volunteers come pack bags of food—enough for three meals.  The bags are given to the kids on Friday at school.”  In 2009, this program distributed 44,098 pounds of food.

The Brown Bag Program is for senior citizens.  Seniors can come in and sign up for this program.  It allows them one large, brown paper bag of food per week.  Senior participants can come pick the food up, or have it delivered to them by volunteers.  This program reportedly distributed 49,663 pounds of food. 

The food bank’s 2009 annual report states that 2,267,709 pounds of food was distributed (including total meals of 1,757,914) in Clarke County at a value of over three million dollars.  Their community outreach increased by 1.1 million pounds of food over the last year. 

Lisa Gillespie, of New Beginnings Ministry, praised the food bank.  “I don’t know how we would do it without them.”  New Beginnings feeds and shelters 60 women in Martin, Georgia.  “They have our order ready on time and it’s accurate with very little spoilage.”  Gillespie said the only problem she’s seen is the food bank’s ability to provide food in the winter.  “They hardly have anything and this seems to be consistent.”

Pastor Earl Delmarter of Healing Place in Athens, a men’s shelter, also feels the food bank does a good job.  “They authentically want to see hunger removed from our community,” he said.  He said the food bank’s training on how to distribute food is helpful.  The food bank helps Healing Place feed dozens of men throughout the year, Delmarter said. 


Barbara Andersen: A bigger vision for Athens’ homeless

by Chari Sutherland

A line forms in front of the building at 415 N. Lumpkin at 6 p.m.   There are 11 men and one woman.  Cold air whips into the tiny entry as they file in, stopping to sign in on a clipboard placed next to a stack of Styrofoam cups and a pot of fresh coffee.  Some of them rub their hands together.  Others allow their shoulders to relax from the hunched-up position they had assumed all day against the cold.

A few go into another small room used for storage and get their assigned tubs containing a mat, two blankets and a pillow.  In the largest of the three rooms, they claim a spot on gray carpeting that has seen better days.  Others immediately get in line in front of one of the two empty tables.  Soon, four young college-aged kids come in carrying cafeteria-style, silver containers.  They set up at the table where the line had formed.

“Smell’s like spaghetti,” one tall, dark man said to no one in particular.

Actually, it was a rare treat: Breakfast for Dinner, including pancakes, sausage, and eggs.

Thus begins a typical night at the Bigger Vision Community Winter Shelter, one of eight shelters in the Athens area.  Barbara Andersen, 78, has coordinated the shelter with her husband, Richard, since 2001. 

Bigger Vision is an emergency homeless shelter open seasonally from October 15 to April 15.  The shelter takes the first 16 people who call at five each evening.  A hot meal is served.  Everyone—including volunteers— is given a mat, two blankets, and pillow.  They all sleep on the floor in one room.  

Bigger Vision started as a ministry of St. James United Methodist Church in 1998 as an overflow shelter, open from November to February.  Andersen was a member of St. James and became a shelter volunteer in 1999.  In 2001, the coordinator at that time left Athens. 

“We ended up taking it over and it has grown since then,” Andersen said. 

A non-profit organization since 2007, Bigger Vision is operated on a volunteer basis.  During last year’s season, 2008 to 2009, there were 350 volunteers.  They recently hired one of the regular volunteers for a part-time, overnight position.  Other than that one employee, the organization is completely run by volunteers and with donations.  Their financial support for the year 2008 was $17,058, much of that grants and donations. 

She pointed to a large yellow refrigerator.  “Someone gave us this.  People in the community donate money and time, she said.  “The shelter has been given a freezer, but we have no place to keep it here.  That’s in our garage right now.  But if we get a more permanent place, it’ll go wherever the shelter is.”   As it is, the space the shelter uses is very limited.  The guests aren’t allowed to bring very much with them on their overnight stays. 

The shelter was housed at St. James until 2004.  Since that time, it has moved nearly every season wherever they could commandeer space.  This is their second year at the Lumpkin Street location.

Andersen’s inspiration to help others began when she was a child, during the Great Depression.  She and her family lived across the street from a church.  Passersby mistook their home for the parsonage.  “So they would stop and knock to see if there was any food available,” she said.  “Fortunately, my father being a school teacher—he may not have made much, but we had some money and my mother would always share whatever we had… an extra potato or whatever.” 

Since her childhood, Andersen went on to work as a nurse with the poor in the ghettos of Philadelphia, with migrant workers in the migrant fields of New Jersey, with prisoners in a penitentiary in Illinois, and established a program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for nursing students to gain practical experience by helping the homeless in shelters. 

Andersen said there are various reasons why people are homeless and they all need a place to get help.  Some of them do hold jobs but don’t make enough to meet their needs.  Some never went to high school, while others have college degrees.  Some of them support families, but can’t fully support themselves.  Some have mental health problems and “are really are in no position to be out in the streets,” she said. 

As coordinator, Andersen described her position at Bigger Vision as “jack of all trades, master of the none”.   In a three-ringed notebook, she keeps all sorts of data, such as the number of people who have donated time, food, or money and how many homeless different “guests” have been served each month.

“I keep track of everybody that’s been here and have since 2004,” she said.  “I can tell you how many have been homeless for a while, or how many are just new to us this year.”  In fact, from October to January Bigger Vision served 1,963 overnight guests.  She predicts the shelter’s 2009-2010 season will surpass the 2007-2008 season which served 2,473 total guests. 

The shelter also has to keep records for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia on how many people have been served.  George McGrady, Agency Relations Coordinator at the food bank, said Bigger Vision surpasses standards. 

Bobby S., who has been utilizing the shelter prior to Andersen’s involvement in 1998, said, “She’s good at keeping things together.”

The shelter used to serve food to anyone, whether they were staying overnight or not, but in December they decided they had to limit meals to overnight guests only.  The demand was too high. 

“A couple of times were knives drawn,” Andersen said.

Andersen is a small, petite woman of only five feet.  When asked if she’s ever felt afraid for her safety, she said no.  “I usually handle the big burly guys and everybody else just stands around and watches, including my husband.”  She said she’s less likely to get hurt because she’s female. 

“I do it just the same way you work with anyone else,” she said, beginning to speak in a lowered, calm, grandmotherly voice.  “You treat them with respect, with kindness, you’re firm.”

She said she always makes sure she’s below them, so they’re looking down on her and that her hands are always visible.  She speaks to them in a relaxed, quiet but firm manner. 

“Let’s put it this way, the fella that’s up to here—” she puts a hand two feet above her own head—“and out like this—” she puts her hands out in semi-circle in front of her to demonstrate girth.  “He’s been put out.  He doesn’t like it but he goes.  There are certain things that are not permitted.” 

“Sometimes people come and they been drinking and she straightens things out,” Bobby said.  “That’s why I call her Big Mama.  She likes it when I call her that.”

Keri Bunting, the shelter’s Volunteer Coordinator, has known Andersen for two years.  She said she’s often seen her deal with unruly guests.  “She has a way of doing it that’s commanding,” she said.  “… a lot of people wouldn’t know how to deal with it or they’d let it escalate.”  She said it’s Andersen’s ability to respect people for who they are that helps in these situations.

“She deals with people very diplomatically,” said John H., a regular guest of the shelter.  “She’s fair.  She treats us equally.” 

Gretchen Bowen, Andersen’s daughter has also observed her mother in action.  When asked if she ever felt concerned about her mother’s safety at the shelter, Bowen said a lot of the shelter guests are very protective of Andersen.  Some of them will intervene if they see a situation getting out of hand because most of them appreciate her and what she’s doing for them. 

John H. said, “When some people need to be ‘excused’, she’s got all our help.” 

Andersen said her goals for the shelter are to have it serve more than 16 people, to be open 365 days a year, and to pair homeless persons with special volunteers she would call “best friends”—someone who will spend time with them, listening and giving suggestions when they are ready. 

“Everyone didn’t become homeless for the same reasons,” she said. “They’re not cookie cutters so everyone can’t approach the problem the same way in the same time.” 

Bunting said Andersen “has a level of commitment past anything I’ve ever seen.  She made this shelter her entire life, her ministry.”  Andersen is her role model and inspiration.  “Seeing how she’s done it is my inspiration for how I can do it.”

Andersen isn’t sure if she’ll ever “retire” from her work at the shelter.  “I haven’t always been so fortunate,” she said, recalling how people helped her when she was struggling as single mom of four children.  “At those times people helped me.  I see this as my time to give back.”