The magic number on Thursday morning was 17.
Seventeen homeless people Thursday morning agreed to leave the streets for a home — apartments that they would share with others.
They also agreed to work with assigned case managers and develop a plan to transform their lives — enter an addiction rehabilitation program, begin counseling for mental illnesses, help get necessary legal papers so they could begin getting disability checks or other support.
It’s called “Streets to Home” — a program that Metro Atlanta’s United Way and the Regional Commission on Homelessness have modeled after a similar program in New York City called “Housing First.”
Several times a month, United Way puts together a team of folks to go out at 5 a.m. to a place where the homeless gather, and then they try to convince those who have been living on the streets to change their lives and move to transitional housing.
This past Thursday morning, a couple dozen of us met at United Way’s headquarters in downtown Atlanta where we went around the room and introduced ourselves. Then, we were told what we could expect on our morning “outreach” experience.
“The work we do today is really important,” said Protip Biswas, executive director of the Homeless Commission. “Every time you go out, you will be humbled and grateful for all that you have.”
Biswas was addressing several volunteers, case managers, a few representatives from organizations with available beds and Atlanta’s United Way President Milton Little.
Also present was long time United Way donor Guy Millner, and one of his friends in the business community, Roger McCollum, president and partner of the N.A. Williams firm. Both are Alexis de Tocqueville Society members, people who give United Way at least $10,000 a year.
Also present were WXIA’s Jeff Hullinger and a cameraman — invited by Millner and United Way.
On Thursday morning, Biswas told us there were 20 beds available for the homeless in apartments at a couple of different locations.
We all carpooled to a nearby church — the Shrine of Immaculate Conception — a gathering spot where homeless people go to spend the night.
A bus from the Gateway Center pulled up in front of the church. The Gateway Center, one of the tangible successes of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, just celebrated its 5th anniversary as a place serving the multiple needs of those without a home.
A soon as we pull up, Tony Stone, outreach coordinator for the Gateway Center, is greeted by several of the homeless men at the church.
“A person I engaged two weeks ago on an outreach was waiting on me this morning,” Stone said. “People were waiting on me. Everybody knew my name. They said: ‘We’ve been looking for you Tony.’”
For the next hour, volunteers engaged with the homeless people at the church. Several were glad to get on the bus, enter the commission’s extensive database and agree to the conditions of becoming one of the apartment dwellers.
Others wanted more information and more time to think about their choices. And others decided to stay on the streets, at least for now.
The issues are complex.
I spent my time talking to a couple — Carrie and Fred. They had recently moved to Atlanta from Mississippi with the hope of finding a better life. Fred had just gotten out of prison, and Carrie said they needed to get away from the influences in Mississippi.
“We are trying our best to find somebody who will marry us,” Carrie said. “We’ve been together four years. I’ve been homeless on and off since I was 18. Now I’m 33 and he’s 29. We’ve been struggling. I really just want a place.”
Carrie and Fred, who both have HIV, had one condition. They would love to find a place to live, but they didn’t want to be separated. But there are limited options for homeless couples because most facilities are either for men or for women and children.
They were assured, however, that a solution would be found. The good news is that Carrie gets a check every month, and so they would have some money coming in.
Several similar scenes were playing out on the steps of the Shrine of Immaculate Conception on Thursday.
McCollum, who is in sales, observed the interaction between the volunteers and the homeless was a bit like closing a business deal — especially when a homeless person agreed to get on the bus.
The sun was coming up, and the bus was full. After delivering the homeless to their new home, the bus would return to pick up the others who had agreed to be part of the “Streets to Home” project.
As of May, 991 clients had been part of the program: 39.7 percent had graduated to independent house or had been reunited with family and other support networks; 39.8 percent of those clients had been placed in supportive housing or had moved on to other programs.
That means that 79.5 percent of those who have been served by the “Streets to Home” project remain off the streets.
The morning’s experience inspired Millner to seek even more money from de Tocqueville donors. “We have 750 de Tocqueville members and all of them have the capacity to do more,” said Millner, who was particularly struck by Tony Stone’s patience and skill in working with the homeless.
McCollum was similarly moved.
“I was so impressed with the professionalism of all of you,” McCollum told the group during the debriefing session. “There was no hesitation to engage with the people. I was blown away by how great you folks are.”
Biswas then reminded the group that of the 17 people who became part of the “Streets to Home” program, at least 12 of them would be able to stay off the streets.
It was shortly after 7 a.m. when everyone stood for a group picture. For most of Atlanta, it was the beginning of a new day.
But for us, the day already felt fulfilled because we had witnessed the beginning of new lives.