What Difference Do Our Differences Make?

There but for the grace of God go I.

Creative Loafing photo credit

Creative Loafing photo credit

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.


  1. I do believe that we are all responsible for helping those around us who are less fortunate – everyone deserves a decent place to call home. Losing Jefferson Place for men and Springdale Place for women are definite steps backwards – we need more housing and services for our homeless citizens, not less! And collaboration among and between our government jurisdictions and providers is key to making progress in this very difficult area – any effort that does not embrace and/or diminishes the necessary partnerships is extremely damaging to the overall goals of ending homelessness.

  2. Hattie Dorsey says:

    When the government, foundations and other civic leaders begin turning a deaf ear and blindness to this issue that really is about poverty, equity and inequality, they turn their backs on the future prosperity of our city. It is not about poor choices, it is more about lack of opportunity that exists in too many neighborhoods, individuals who return from wars without mental health support and lack of job opportunities, children that become adult who were born into poverty without good schools and a chance to escape, women who end up in divorce, and the list goes on……Until it is understood that poverty, inequality and all it brings will eventually have detrimental affects on all of us – there is no ‘will’ to do anything about it,

  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    I am one of the 86.4 million Americans working outside of government. We the 86.4 million support 147.8 million benefits takers with $1.9 trillion each year – that’s $12,850 on average for every benefits taker. 58% of our tax dollars are spent on the benefits takers: 24% for Social Security; 22% for Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP; and 12% for the social safety net. The problem is not how much money is spent – the problem is how it is spent. The fault lies in those who manage the benefits programs. Take your anger out on them.

  4. I don’t consider folks who receive a Social Security check to be “takers” – they contributed to a financial system that eventually provides a return. I hope to someday be a taker of that system, since I have been a payer for decades. Unless, of course, you are talking about mentally or physically disabled folks who receive a Social Security Disability income payment – they may or may not have paid into the system in previous years. But if they are so disabled that they were never able to work and pay into the system, I will gladly share my treasure to help them have a place to live. I’m sure they would love to trade places with you or I.

    • Burroughston Broch says:

      They are nevertheless takers because the SSA taxes you, I, and our employers pay now goes to pay those drawing now. The taxes they and their employers contributed have long ago been spent by the Federal Government. You and I must count on our children and grandchildren to pay our benefits when we begin to take them.

  5. John Sweet says:

    Atlanta has always thrilled me, and it caught me when I came as a Vista volunteer. I went to law school here, and for the 40 years the joke at the office was that we competed with legal aid. Whatever we did was in service to individuals,most with no other recourse. In addition to other non-profit work, I served for decades on two Homeless Boards, and chaired the AHA Board through the Olympics. And throughout I have had the joy of working with other people who have commented here, as well as the ever flowing freshet of volunteers of every progressive ilk, that have made Atlanta hopeful, constructive. It remains a social experiment to better the lot and opportunity of everyone building ad replacing institutions that serve those in need, struggling with our legacy of slavery, and the perfidy of racism. When we succeed, we build on that, when we fail, we dust ourselves off, and keep going. It has been a wonderful place to raise a family.

    But we are, for all our successes, part of a complex system of virtually unadulterated greed. A client brought me an article that replayed an analysis of income distribution that has been repeated, and rehashed for years, with statistics, and trends, we all get the point. But this article simply said that the richest 85 people in the world now own over 50% of the world’s wealth. The utter simplicity of that set of figures has haunted me for days. Someone pull the plug. There is no point to this avarice. It is out of control. Perhaps I am just reflecting on how much I really wanted to change that growing disparity ever since I was young. Perhaps I am embarrassed by how little our best wishes and intentions have affected this problem. And there is no clear consensus as to how to address it, perhaps because we feel like we, as individuals, quietly believe that we will not go down that long lonesome road, because we, and I mean I, have enough to make it, and there is always someone with less, that tells me that there but for the grace of someone, something go I. But honestly, I am not fooled by the material things in my life. I will cast the remainder of my lot, as I have done, with those who have been victims of this system.

    But as I labor with all of you, will some one turn me in, tap my phone, take my picture, put me on the list of those who believe that we are trapped in an economic system that is out of control, and no longer serves the people, if indeed it ever did. I am not afraid of the obvious, all wealth should be shared.


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    What Difference Do Our Differences Make?