Retired Investor Bets on Atlanta's Homeless Men
Stories of homelessness are interwoven with many of the same complications and setbacks: Lack of education, dependence on handouts, broken families, addiction and criminal records are common. Add a sudden job loss, and getting back on track can seem impossible.
Bill McGahan leads an organization that peels away those layers and helps restore men to self-sufficiency. He is the founder of Georgia Works! – a residential program putting chronically homeless men in Atlanta back to work.
McGahan, 52, retired in 2012 from a successful career as an investor and began looking for ways to make a difference. His volunteering career began with From Houses to Homes, a nonprofit that builds homes and facilities in rural Guatemala.
He soon joined the board and created a project recruiting 20 to 25 Atlanta high school students annually to participate in a build. More than 100 students have helped build more than 20 new homes.
Like many Atlantans, McGahan was troubled by the homelessness downtown. He spent a year visiting shelters, sometimes staying overnight, to better understand the issues. That background helped him create Georgia Works! – which provides room and board, case management and professional development while contracting with private employers willing to hire its participants.
To be accepted into the six- to 12-month program, men must have no outstanding warrants; agree to remain drug and alcohol free while in the program; accept no handouts other than health care; get along with other participants; and work.
In the year since its inception, Georgia Works! has graduated 22 of the 86 men who have participated. Most graduates have their own apartments and still hold the job they got through the program. About 34 men are working toward graduation.
“The whole idea of the program is to take people who have bad habits and create good habits,” says Jack Hardin, a Georgia Works! board member and co-chairman of the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta's Regional Commission on Homelessness. “We haven't done it long enough to have a long-term read on how it will stick, but those guys are doing great.”
McGahan says the typical “client” is in his 30s or 40s, has been arrested more than a dozen times and has two or three felonies for robbery, drugs or forgery. Many have no high school degree and have long overdue child support and court fines.
Their driver's licenses have been revoked and they have no credit, no bank account and no mailing address. Family relationships have been frayed or broken, and they have no relationship with their children.
“They're lonely, and they have no way of getting out of that hole,” McGahan says.
Georgia Works! case managers help participants tackle the issues standing in the way of getting and holding a job. They reach out to courts to resolve probation violations and child support fines, and they teach the men how to talk honestly about themselves and their criminal records with potential employers.
Participants start out earning $15 per week while getting cleared for work. Within a couple of months, they're hired out to one of about a dozen private employers – largely contractors, waste management and recycling companies – where the men earn the standard hourly wage. By the time they graduate, participants have at least $1,500 in savings to secure an apartment and start a new life.
“There are two questions I get all the time,” says McGahan. “Why are you doing this? And why haven't we done this before? The answer to those questions is – I 'm doing it because we haven't done this before.”