Opinion: End chronic homelessness

Moderated by RICK BADIE

Today we highlight a nonprofit whose founder says it’s a moral and fiscal imperative to end chronic homelessness on the streets of downtown Atlanta. Read his perspective and the mission of his organization, Georgia Works! A companion essay stresses the need for additional state money to help adults with developmental disabilities get into the workplace.

 Georgia Works!

By BILL MCGAHAN, founder and chairman of Georgia Works!

Downtown Atlanta is largely empty after dark. Billions of dollars of real estate and potential economic activity are being wasted. Much of this is because of fear of crime. And while this perception is not supported by statistics, the fear is perpetuated by the chronic homeless.

Our investments in infrastructure, conventions, parks, streetcars and stadiums will all be for naught if we do not create a downtown where people feel safe and economic activity can flourish. This means solving the problem of chronic homelessness.

On any given night, more than 5,600 Atlantans face homelessness. Of these, 4,000 are poor people who have had an “episode” in their lives. The other approximately 1,600 people have bigger problems. These are the “chronically” homeless, many homeless for many years. Many of these folks live on downtown streets.

At least 25 percent of the chronically homeless have severe mental illness. The other 1,200 able-bodied (mostly) men are “stuck” in homelessness. They have a combination of problems: past criminal records; historical addiction to crack, marijuana or alcohol; no work experience and/or bad work habits; bad credit; past-due child support; wage garnishments; no drivers license; past-due fines and court costs; no bank accounts; no mailing address; no connection to family and children; and a poor formal education. Escaping from chronic homelessness is impossible without help.

Georgia Works! was founded in 2013 to get men from chronic homelessness to self-sufficiency. We change men’s habits from dependency to a work-based self-sufficiency. Men are required to be alcohol and drug free upon entry and throughout the program, to renounce all handouts and to work.

Initially, men do unpaid chores. After 30 days, men are issued a uniform and paid $7.40 an hour to pick up trash in the community. After four months, they are eligible to go to work for one of our 18 corporate customers who contract directly with Georgia Works! for labor.Over the course of a year, our case managers work with each man on his individual problems. They help them get their IDs; attend substance abuse classes; establish an email account, a mailing address and a bank account; address past-due child support, and reconcile with families and children. Courses are given each day, such as “Men Making Better Decisions” and smoking cessation classes.

Since our founding 15 months ago, Georgia Works! has graduated 37 men who have gone from living under bridges and in parks to living in their own apartments, being employed and paying taxes. Of our 37 graduates, 36 are still employed and in their original apartments. We graduate an additional five to six men every month.

Some Georgia Works! graduates make $45,000 as commercial truck drivers, and many work at jobs paying $15-plus an hour. There are currently 60 men in the program working toward self-sufficiency. We are expanding our program to serve 100 men by this summer.

Georgia Works! can take a man from chronic homelessness to self-sufficiency for less than $10,000. In comparison, it costs Georgia $18,000 to house a prisoner for a year.

Ending chronic homelessness downtown is the right thing to do for two reasons.

First, many of the homeless were born with huge disadvantages: early physical or sexual abuse, no parents, horrible role models, crime-infested neighborhoods, poor schools and no economic opportunity (combined with some poor decisions).

Second, it’s in our economic interest to get the chronically homeless to self-sufficiency. We need to increase economic activity downtown. We have made substantial investments in private real estate and public infrastructure, including stadiums, the Atlanta Streetcar, universities and parks. Only through ending the perception of crime, and ending chronic homelessness, will our investments pay off.

Find this opinion article also on MyAJC.

Disabled Georgians need jobs

By KATHY KEELEY, executive director of All About Developmental Disabilities

For individuals with developmental disabilities, the typical choices after high school — getting a job or going to college — are difficult, if not impossible. There are thousands of Georgians with developmental disabilities, and the unemployment rate for them is close to 87 percent. These individuals are not sharing in the recession recovery, and many sit home waiting to join the workforce.

As the 2015 General Assembly works on the budget, All About Developmental Disabilities asks legislators for an increase in appropriation of state funds of $1.96 million in the fiscal year 2016 budget for Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. This would fund a program covering immediate supported employment for high school students with developmental disabilities, helping 250 students find work.

Developmental disabilities are defined as severe, life-long disabilities that limit critical life functions and occur before the age of 22. They include autism, Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy. Supported employment is an individualized approach to match these individuals with jobs in typical workplaces. The goal: Have them work alongside people without disabilities earning minimum wage or above. Employment services can provide assessment, job development and placement and coaching.

In fiscal year 2015, Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities authorized $10.9 million for supported employment services. The need far exceeds what that amount can provide for individuals on waiting lists and the unemployed. Currently, Georgia lags the rest of the nation in helping people with disabilities find employment. We rank in the bottom five states for funding.

Supported employment has demonstrated results with placement and retention of employees in real jobs in the community. The economic return to the state exceeds $1.60 for every dollar spent helping an individual.

Beyond that, the return to workers and their families is incalculable. It means the difference between a life of isolation at home, and full participation in the world of work and the community. Without this program, these students would likely finish high school, only to return home and sit on the couch to wait until they qualify for a Medicaid waiver to pay for services.Some employers worry such employees will not be able to keep up with the pace of work, or that their customers will disapprove. Through our “HireAbility” campaign, All About Developmental Disabilities is educating Georgia’s employers, dispelling fears and preconceptions about hiring these individuals.

Studies have shown the benefits of hiring people with developmental disabilities. Lower turnover, lower absenteeism rates, strong job loyalty, increased employee morale and enhanced corporate image are just a few of the benefits.

Employment programs work with companies to ensure successful placement and success on the job. Job coaching services work with the employer and supervisors to help with training, teaching new job skills, and ensuring a successful experience for all.

Many Georgia employers have experienced the benefits of hard-working, reliable, committed and caring workers who can outperform their non-disabled peers. Publix, Walgreens, Home Depot, the Georgia Aquarium, PF Chang’s, Kroger and Hamilton Health Care in Dalton can testify to the strengths and abilities of these workers.

It’s vital for us to work together to make sure job opportunities exist for all. This funding from the Legislature will allow individuals with developmental disabilities to experience the satisfaction and economic security only a job can provide. By focusing on their abilities, not their disabilities, we can promote workplace success and improve lives.

Find this opinion article also on MyAJC.

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