Stories of homelessness are interwoven with many of the same complications and set-backs. Lack of education, dependence on handouts, broken families, addiction and criminal records are all too 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. McGahan is the founder of Georgia Works, a residential program putting chronically homeless men in Atlanta back to work. The nonprofit 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 and agree to four rules: 1) Remain drug and alcohol free while in the program, 2) accept no handouts other than health care, 3) get along with other participants, and 4) work.
In the year since its inception, Georgia Works has graduated 22 of the 86 men who made an effort to enter. Most graduates have their own apartments and still hold the job they got through the program.
About 34 men remain in the program working toward graduation.
“The whole idea of the program is to take people who have bad habits and create good habits,” said Jack Hardin, board chairman for Gateway 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. I think it’s making a big difference, and I’m very excited about it.”
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, according to McGahan. 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 Their driver’s licenses have been revoked and they have no credit, no bank account and no mailing address.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 said.
Georgia Works case managers help participants tackle each of the issues standing in the way of getting and holding a job. That work starts with reaching out to courts to resolve probation violations and child support fines, which sometimes includes negotiating a reasonable payment plan. Case managers teach men how to talk honestly about themselves and their criminal records with potential employers. Participants must complete daily chores in the dorms and attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The program also offers GED courses.
The cost to put one man through Georgia Works is about $10,000 a year, McGahan said. But through its work program, he expects Georgia Works to eventually pay for itself. “Most all homeless programs other than [Georgia Works] are based solely upon donations, but I’m hopeful get it to the point where it’s almost break even, where the money we generate for our labor can greatly offset the costs of the program,” McGahan said.
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. The program distributes the men’s paychecks, holding $100 weekly earnings for room and board and $50 that goes into savings. Most receive at least $70 per week of pocket money. By the time they graduate, participants have at least $1,500 in savings to secure an apartment and start a new life.
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 New Jersey-based 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, he was troubled by the homelessness downtown. McGahan spent a year visiting shelters – sometimes staying overnight – to better understand the issues. He researched programs including the Gateway Center, a shelter that connects homeless families and individuals with the gamut of services available in Atlanta. A nationally heralded program in New York City, called Ready and Willing, inspired McGahan to develop something like it in Atlanta.
“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.”