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Homeless veteran rates in Atlanta have dropped by 70 percent, but we still have more to do…

Earlier this month, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officially confirmed that the City of Atlanta has met the federal benchmarks and criteria for ending veteran homelessness. This means that we have all the components of a responsive system in place to end veteran homelessness.

The numbers look promising! There has been a 70 percent drop in homeless veterans in Atlanta over the past five years. This is in sync with the 40 percent drop in all homelessness for the City of Atlanta.

The impact on veteran homelessness is an example for all those wanting to create significant improvement in human care issues. United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Regional Commission on Homelessness (RCOH) thinks there are several elements to be emulated from this work. These include sustained public leadership, committed community champions and philanthropic support of innovation.

Sustained leadership from the public sector is key to building on momentum and success. Federal agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Housing and Urban Development and state entities like the Department of Community Affairs and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities have collaborated and provided resources to make this work possible. However, the key to success has been sustained leadership at the local level.

For the City of Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed and his administration have championed the effort to reduce veteran homelessness, assigned key staff, attracted new resources and brought favorable attention to this issue.  He expanded and built on the groundbreaking work of his predecessor, Mayor Shirley Franklin, who spurred the formation of RCOH and highlighted the issue as a priority during her tenure.

RCOH is grateful that both made it a priority to issue bonds that provided much needed resources to address homelessness. Our progress has been enhanced by public sector support.

Committed community champions are the secret ingredients in moving our work forward. Leadership from corporate and community members has galvanized cross-sector collaboration. Jack Hardin, co-chair of RCOH, embodies the concept of a champion by tirelessly making connections and providing guidance to enhance collaboration and strategic thinking. We are fortunate to have him build on the work of his predecessor Horace Sibley, who brought together leaders from across the region to address homelessness. We also acknowledge the pivotal role of Reverend James Milner, who along with others in the faith community, kept the issue of homelessness front and center for our political leaders.

As we observe champions in action, we find that they are connectors who inspire others to lead. We have hundreds of individuals working every day, tirelessly assisting those experiencing homelessness. Their efforts are enhanced, supported and made more effective by these volunteer champions whose work has resulted in increased innovation and resources that leverage the tireless work of our nonprofit agencies.

Leadership from Greg Block and Bill McGahan resulted in new agencies like First Step Staffing and Georgia Works – social enterprises providing unique employment opportunities. Real estate developers Aaron Goldman and Tim Solomon and their colleagues at the Atlanta Real Estate Collaborative provided access to thousands of apartments for the homeless. These and other examples of community champions have enabled Atlanta’s success in reducing veteran and overall homelessness.

Philanthropic support of innovation. Atlanta’s nonprofit leaders working on ending homelessness have been willing to learn from success in other communities and to implement innovative practices. None of this would have been possible without the generous support of our local foundations and the corporate community. The steadfast leadership and support from the trustees of the Woodruff and Whitehead foundations, as well as other foundations, have made a huge difference. For example, the J. B. Fuqua Foundation Inc, invested early in the work addressing veteran homelessness but challenged us to raise a match. This has become a best practice for us to leverage partnerships and is exemplified in the current Homestretch Initiative – a remarkable public-private partnership aiming to raise more than $50 million, to be leveraged with another $60 million of state and federal funds to achieve a community where homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

Corporations and their foundations have been major partners in raising resources and enabling innovation. The Home Depot has been a national leader in investing in housing for veterans. Other corporations like Lockton, Lockheed Martin and RentPath have contributed financial and staff resources to address veteran homelessness. United Way of Greater Atlanta’s RCOH gratefully acknowledges increased engagement of corporations and individuals for their generous support.

Examples in innovation can been seen across Greater Atlanta. Campus environments have been created with housing and services for veterans set up by Veterans Empowerment Organization. And City of Refuge Inc. has created campus-like housing for women and children. Creative partnerships have been formed between Grady Hospital, Gateway Center and Mercy Care to provide respite care for homeless persons coming out of hospitals. Project Community Connections, Inc. has been able provide deposits and rent to facilitate the transition to apartments, before the term “rapid re-housing” was in vogue nationally!

Philanthropic support for case management and move-in funds made it possible for the Atlanta Housing Authority to provide vouchers for veterans and families. This sort of innovation and cross- sector partnership has been at the core of the positive trends we experience.

We recognize that the positive trend in alleviating homelessness is only a call for us to persevere harder to build a brighter future for our children.

We are glad to support Homestretch, a public-private partnership, which aims to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring in our community. We implore you to join us, as it is only through engagement of the broader community that we will ensure continued impact.

We have a lot more to do, and every homeless person is a reminder that we need to do better.

Protip Biswas is the Vice President of Homelessness and Place-based Initiatives at United Way of Greater Atlanta.

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