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Atlanta steps up on homelessness issue

Mayor Kasim Reed has made reducing homelessness a top priority in the wake of state and county failures.

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The first night Barrett Griffin slept in his new apartment on Flat Shoals Road, the first home he's called his own since he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1980, he was disturbed by the quiet.

The 52-year-old New Jersey native, who since leaving the service had been homeless, suicidal, and wrestling with alcoholism, expected to hear noises from the 59 other men with whom he shared a room in a downtown homeless assistance facility. Prior to that he was sleeping on the streets.

"It took me a while to get used to the quiet," Griffin says, smiling and standing in the living room of the one-bedroom flat just outside Atlanta's city limits. Today he's sober, found help with his mental illness, and employed as a floor technician at the Georgia Aquarium. "I'm very hopeful about my future."

Griffin was one of 131 U.S. veterans who was able to find housing with the help of the city, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and nonprofits in the last 100 days as part of a 14-city competition — which, Mayor Kasim Reed proudly points out, Atlanta won. By next December, the city hopes to link 300 more of the estimated 400 chronically homeless veterans living on its streets with housing.

The effort is the first of what the administration hopes will be several ongoing initiatives aimed at tackling the homelessness problem that's become just as much a part of Atlanta's identity as its traffic congestion. Atlanta is funding the two-year project with a $3.1 million "Innovation Delivery" grant that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic foundation gifted last year to five cities to tackle urban challenges. Atlanta selected reducing chronic street homelessness and improving the city's customer service, including creating a long-overdue 311 call center.

The initiative doesn't aim to end homelessness — an impossible task — but to reduce individual homelessness, says Kristin Canavan Wilson, who left a VP job at LexisNexis to lead the city's seven-member team. The goal: get at least 700 chronically homeless people off the city's streets by 2013.

For roughly the past six months, the team has studied cities such as Denver, Chicago, New York, and Columbus, considered the strongest leader, to learn best practices. In addition, they've partnered with Clark Atlanta University, which has interviewed 300 homeless people; Georgia Tech, which has mapped the cities' homeless clusters and service providers; and Emory University, which has agreed to corral the findings.

Though the plan, titled "Unsheltered No More," is not yet complete, the team has settled on some core strategies. They've broken up Atlanta's homeless population into four segments: episodic, such as people who are on the streets because of the recession or job loss; chronic, which includes people living with mental illnesses or addictions: families; and veterans.

Put simply: The team will identify and focus on the most vulnerable, try to reduce red tape, eliminate inefficiencies and hurdles that prevent them from quickly finding the right housing or services, and bring Atlanta's myriad nonprofits closer together. In January, it will spend a week counting and interviewing Atlanta's homeless to build a registry.

Wilson's team's efforts have already encouraged some resource providers to consider filling some gaps: As a result of the talks, the Central Outreach & Advocacy Center is looking into creating a day center in its downtown headquarters which could act as a "one-stop shop" where the city's homeless could find job training, legal advice, housing placement — "anything a person needs to get off the street and get back into self-sufficiency," says Executive Director Chuck Bowen — rather than visiting five or six locations.

While some residents and businesses might want the city to take a more hands-on approach — i.e., hiring caseworkers and building a shelter where it can provide mental health counseling and medication — its charter prevents it from doing so.

Frankly, homelessness shouldn't be an issue the city even addresses. That job really belongs to Fulton County and the state, whose leaders seem to be missing in action. In May, without much prior notice to homeless resource providers, the county cut by half the amount of grant funding it provided to nonprofits, apparently because of the "tough economy." It's no wonder that City Hall has picked up the slack, a move which could motivate the responsible parties to do even less.

What sets Atlanta's effort apart from other plans we've seen and heard over the years — remember 2003's "Blueprint to End Homelessness in Atlanta in Ten Years"? — is that it's coming from Reed's office, rather than from multicounty, public-private coalitions. He can use the power of his office and relationships to gather and rally stakeholders and locate private and public funding where necessary.

Homeless service providers and advocates contacted by CL are skeptical but optimistic about the effort. One source applauded the people involved and the business-minded approach they're taking. But even if all the red tape gets cut and kinks in the system straightened out, homeless services still don't have a dedicated funding stream and are left struggling to pay case managers and other professionals who give homeless individuals the attention they need.

Even worse, it could give Fulton County and the state cover to continue doing the bare minimum to help the homeless, rather than stepping up, allocating funding, and showing some compassion. Regardless, it's the issue the mayor wanted to confront.

"The mayor could've used his [Bloomberg grant] on any subject," says Susan Lampley, a member of Wilson's team who's focusing on the homelessness initiative. "But it's something he saw as a need."

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