In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a corrupt mythical king who was punished and forced to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down every time.
Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle used the story as an analogy when asked whether the government can solve homelessness.
“To some degree, it’s a little Sisyphean,” Houle said.
Houle sounds like he’s admitting homelessness is a problem the government can never completely fix.
The government, though, continues to try.
Atlanta recently announced an expensive new initiative to house the homeless. Athens, meanwhile, tries to help a growing homeless population. From the spread of homeless camps in several Athens neighborhoods to frequent disruptions downtown, the number of homeless people has visibly increased in recent years.
“We’ve definitely made mistakes,” Houle said when asked about his county’s benchmarks for success.
“There are probably gaps in our understanding, but we could do the exact perfect thing if there was an objective metric. It still wouldn’t solve the problem of homelessness.”
In Atlanta and Athens, residents stress how much compassion they have. But what matters more? Good intentions? Good results? If it’s the latter, then how does one obtain those results most efficiently?
Public safety is at stake, as are millions of taxpayer dollars.
Members of one Atlanta-based nonprofit say they’ve found a way to help the homeless lift themselves to a higher station in life. But, unlike government aid, that charity is not unconditional. Is that the best path forward?
PATTERNS AND TRENDS
Judge Glock, a senior fellow and director of research at the Manhattan Institute, says homelessness nationwide has increased continuously since 2016.
In 2019, Georgia had a total homeless population of 10,443, according to a Porch.com study.
Glock said there are two types of homelessness: sheltered and unsheltered. Sixty percent of homeless people go to shelters. Those are most likely single mothers with children who go unhoused for short periods.
“It’s the unsheltered population that has been going up the most rapidly,” Glock said, adding the unsheltered are mostly single men who struggle with mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
“One important thing for people to remember is that when people think of the homeless population they think of people out on the streets, but that is about 40% of the homeless population.”
Houle, citing Athens-Clarke County’s Strategic Plan to Reduce and Prevent Homelessness, said Athens has 4,003 homeless people. Atlanta, meanwhile, has 2,679 homeless people, according to a federally-mandated survey last year.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens recently announced that the city will spend $7.5 million to house the city’s homeless.
Dickens’ spokesman, Michael Smith, said via email that the city will finance a line of credit to construct 500 micro units that will provide the homeless with temporary, semi-permanent or permanent shelter.
Similar plans are afoot in Athens, said business owner Jason Jacobs. He has engaged with local community leaders on the issue.
“That is the idea behind our Strategic Plan to Reduce Homelessness,” Jacobs said.
“They are talking about a ‘housing first’ approach to it — the actual idea of people getting a roof over their heads and then they have a better chance of crawling out of the hole that they’re in.”
As for Houle, when asked how best to provide stability to the homeless, he said this:
“You recognize that at the root of their situation is a medical issue and provide some kind of supportive housing.”
But going back to Jacobs, he thinks housing the homeless treats the symptom — and not the problem.
“You think about sleeping outdoors and how horrible that can be. I think there needs to be a shelter of sorts. The bulk of this strategic plan goes to building a facility, but it is a low-barrier facility. I have an issue with that. That means no criminal background checks and no requirement for sobriety,” Jacobs said.
“The problem is really not knowing who is staying there. I think there is a real dangerous situation where people who are trying to stay sober and trying to get back on the up and up will be around people using or people under the influence, which would impede their own ability.”
Jacobs went on to say that homeless people in these circumstances shouldn’t get something for nothing.
“Asking someone to be sober is not a tall ask,” Jacobs said.
YOU MUST LEARN HOW TO HELP YOURSELF
Georgia Works, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, helps the homeless but attaches certain conditions to its philanthropy.
“When our founder Bill McGahan launched Georgia Works 10 and a half years ago, he said he wanted to figure out why you got homeless in the first place,” said Georgia Works President Darlene Schultz.
“We want to help you get past that. We want to help you overcome what many of the barriers are – mental health or substance abuse. At Georgia Works you must come into the program clean, sober and drug-free and agree to stay that way the entire time you are in the program, which lasts six to eight months.”
Georgia Works does not accept local or federal funding, although Schultz said it did receive a $5 million grant from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. The nonprofit used that money to purchase a new facility.
“Here, we do not practice the ‘housing first’ approach,” Schultz said.
“A ‘housing first’ approach, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is what you must carry to get any of those federal dollars.”
Athens resident Susan Monteverde serves as board president for SafeD Athens, another nonprofit. Monteverde said the nonprofit, among other things, examines homelessness from a safety and security standpoint.
“The ‘housing first’ approach started with the Obama administration,” Monteverde said.
“What that means is don’t ask questions [of the homeless]. Just get them housing and then figure it out. Then provide services. There is no accountability. They do not have to accept mental health services in that situation, even if they are offered.”
Schultz, meanwhile, says she believes the “housing first” approach can work — but it’s not for everybody.
“My plea to HUD and anybody else that listens is to offer up multiple answers for people who are experiencing homelessness,” Schultz said.
Schultz points to a man named Adolphus Chandler as one of Georgia Works’ many success stories.
Chandler said he was homeless and also drug addicted until the age of 58, when he found Georgia Works.
“All of our guys don’t get it right [the first time]. We also have guys who sometimes have to go through the program twice. They can come back and try it again. This program, I feel, was designed for me,” said Chandler, who is now 69 years old.
“Not only does it help you get a job. It helps you work on the barriers you have to employment. That is a great thing, and, I think, this program’s most important aspect.”
For graduates, Georgia Works offers a full-time job and permanent housing, as explained in this YouTube video.
Chandler is now a compliance officer for Georgia Works. His tasks include program orientation and handling all of the intake screening.
According to the Georgia Works website, more than 850 men have graduated from the program. Exactly 70% of the men who participate make it through to graduation. Exactly 90% of graduates are now in contact with their children and families. A total of 99% of graduates have not been arrested. And 100% of graduates are hired for jobs by the time they graduate.
COMPASSION AND SENSITIVITY
Prominent Athens businessman Steve Middlebrooks said he’s careful when he says the word “homeless.”
“To say the word you can easily sound insensitive [to that population],” Middlebrooks said, adding he and others want to find effective solutions to help.
“We are far from that.”
Jacobs offered these thoughts.
“The people here are somewhat scared to say anything,” Jacobs said.
“They are scared to be called insensitive. That is the overarching theme, I feel.”
In Athens, the overall sense of compassion is so thick that the residents don’t just want to help their local homeless. They also help the homeless from surrounding areas.
“Paramedics, police and firefighters have told me that other counties have dropped their homeless off here because there was a place for them to go in Athens,” Jacobs said.
“That is known and something no one wants to talk about.”
Houle calls that story his “least favorite rumor,” although one “partially rooted in truth.”
“Some people might find their own way here one way or another,” Houle said.
“The first thing we have to ask is what do we mean by ‘from here’? You usually define a place as wherever you live, so if someone is unhoused then they’re kind of inherently from wherever they are.”
Houle calls Athens a city surrounded by rural counties and, subsequently, a place that can serve as a hub for other people with behavioral health or housing challenges.
Jacobs, in contrast, wonders whether serving additional homeless people is something Athens can afford to take on.
Houle cited the Strategic Plan to Reduce and Prevent Homelessness. According to that report, exactly 90% of Athens’ homeless residents have either lived in the city for more than a year or did not relocate to Athens from another county.
RESULTS, METRICS, AND SELF-SUFFICIENCY
As far as all this government spending is concerned, Jacobs wants to know what, precisely, is the ideal outcome? What are the government’s metrics for success?
“The most concrete answer I got [at a community meeting] was ‘We’ll be better set up to ask for more money and apply for more grants to address the problem,’” Jacobs said.
Glock said handing out taxpayer dollars is the easy part. Far more difficult is finding out what works.
“That is a fact of life and true of all government programs, and especially with homelessness. It is very difficult often to show you are making meaningful improvement. You can show people have returned to housing. You can show employment has gone up among former participants. You can even show reductions in prison time or hospitalization for some people. But that kind of data gathering is tough and can be expensive,” Glock said.
“The cities that have gone all-in on the housing model solution for homelessness like Los Angeles and San Francisco spent a lot of money. They made big promises to the population. The population was willing to spend more money because they thought it would make for a meaningful end to homelessness. They were pretty disappointed when it did not play out.”
Michael Smith (Andre Dickens’ spokesman) was asked via email if Atlanta will use any metrics to gauge the success of its housing program. Smith did not answer.
Smith was also asked what the city would do if homeless people from other areas traveled to Atlanta to take advantage of its housing program.
“The fact of the matter is individuals experiencing homelessness are already in Atlanta, so it is our moral obligation to provide them a hand up,” Smith said, without elaborating.
Jacobs said it is challenging to reduce homelessness “without the willing participation of the people you are trying to help.” He also said homeless people who struggle with mental or drug instability and commit inappropriate acts in public — some of which have occurred outside of his store — do not think rationally. Jacobs suggests that the law should require those people to attend some sort of care court or mental health care court.
“This is where you have a choice. You either go to jail for this or you can go to a public facility to get mental counseling or alcohol counseling,” Jacobs said.
“It would be for the best, not just for the community at large but for this person, to have mandated mental health or drug sobriety. Something put on them with consequences involved to help force them to do the best for themselves.”
Can the government ever end homelessness?
Good intentions are one thing. Good results are another. Jacobs wants results.
“The methods they are using have perpetuated the problem,” Jacobs said.
“I want to see them take different tactics.”
Chandler, remembering his time among the homeless, said he benefited from different tactics.
“If Georgia Works had just given me a place to stay then that would not have helped my spirit. I needed the structure of this program. I needed the people who were there to help me,” Chandler said.
“Everybody is working on the same goal, and that is to get back to self-sufficiency. That is one of the things that helps keep the morale up here. That helps keep the staff motivated and helps these guys. Now I have a purpose. I am working. I am not a burden on the government. I have my own income. I have my own place to stay. All of that is what helped build back up my self-esteem.”