There but for the grace of God go I.
A recent Atlanta Journal Constitution article by Bill Torpy highlighted the funding crisis for homeless shelters in Fulton County. He points out that in spite of some incredible success stories of programs that have served thousands of homeless men, military veterans, women and children, and the work of the Gateway Center, there is still more work to do. Torpy adds homelessness to the running tally of Great 21st Century American Challenges, which include public education, job development, hunger, affordable housing, and affordable healthcare.
It appears from the article that Fulton County is having second thoughts about their responsibility for funding the human service needs of some of its residents. The same might be said about the State of Georgia as well. Whatever we were doing right for homelessness, we need to get back to doing. There is more hard work to do. Some of that work requires more money–not less. And it means a serious commitment to finding resources not just reordering priorities and shuffling line items in budgets.
A team of 25 civic minded, fully engaged volunteers had the nerve in 2003 to tackle homelessness in a different way. They forged a partnership with dozens of nonprofit organizations across the region to create the seven-county Atlanta Regional Commission on Homelessness. The group was under the awesome and committed leadership of retired attorney Horace Sibley in partnership with then United Way of Metro Atlanta CEO, Mark O’Connell. They along with Jack Hardin, Nancy Boxill, Debi Starnes, Bonnie Ware, Rev. Jim Milner, Bill Bolling, Elizabeth Omilami, and others set the region on a course to improve the lives of those who found themselves homeless. Many people were locked out of services, disenfranchised of their rightful benefits and completely isolated from any chance to get back on their feet. A few trusting foundations, some local and state government funding and individual donors resulted in an infusion of $60 million in seven years of new funding for substantive, reasonable programs to address the urgent needs of metro Atlanta’s most needy.
Talking about this in hindsight might give you the impression this was easy work, one grant or one speech and the work was done. No, this was hard work that took months of research, collaboration and planning. We had to put aside our differences, listen to the people we served, be attentive to the challenges of those organizations on the frontline and disregard our differences. This problem was bigger than any differences we might have had. We had to be flexible and respectable that in some cases those we wanted to serve didn’t want our intervention. A few organizations chose not to join the effort. And that was okay, they had every right to refuse assistance, because their specific mission was different and they didn’t want to get away from their purpose.
We can dwell on what didn’t happen but the more compelling stories are of those 7,000 people served by the Gateway Center last year, thousands of women and children served by City of Refuge and the dozens of families served by Odyssey Villas. None of these organizations existed in 2003. And there are the stories of dozens of veterans who have resettled into apartments with the help of federal grants and local donations.
I know and love an Atlanta that works to get things right. An Atlanta that cares as much about those in need as we do our own success, that can unite to raise $60 million for homelessness, and in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Maynard Jackson–doesn’t give up. As mayor, I often referenced the legacies of Mayors Allen and Young as examples of men who were willing to work through the City’s historic and cultural differences in order to make a difference. In tribute to their efforts and so many others, I know that Atlanta is smart enough to find answers to the tough questions surrounding homelessness.