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The fight to house Atlanta’s most vulnerable populations

A day in the life of a HOPE Atlanta caseworker

HOPE Atlanta client Bradley W. finally has a safe place to call home after experiencing chronic homelessness

How can someone eat, sleep, find a job, or heal if they’re squarely focused on survival? Safe, stable housing is tantamount to a person’s ability to thrive. Yet, for many, housing is out of reach. In this series, we’re talking to someone who’s looking to change that here in Georgia: Nigel Dawson, a HOPE Atlanta caseworker and long-time human rights advocate on the front lines in the fight to end homelessness.

In part two of our three-part series, we’re exploring HOPE Atlanta’s housing-first approach to relieve homelessness, how Dawson serves clients, and the risks of living on the streets of Atlanta. (Missed Part I? You can get caught up here).

When someone who is struggling first reaches out to HOPE Atlanta, where do you begin to help them?

Oftentimes we help clients by applying for HUD vouchers, Section 8 vouchers, and facilitating rapid rehousing. We’ve also been doing rapid intervention, where we try to find out if our clients have a rapid resolution. Do they have friends that they can live with? Or a family member who can prevent them from becoming homeless? Essentially, we’re diverting them before they need our services.

If a client doesn’t have a “back-up plan” and becomes homeless, what happens next?

All of the research over the last 20 years has shown that housing people first dramatically improves other aspects of their lives. It is very hard to take care of your health or get a job when you’re homeless because you’re focused on surviving every day.

That’s why all of the services within HOPE Atlanta’s homelessness relief program take a housing-first approach. We can house people no matter what their past history is — if they have mental health issues, if they have drug issues, or if they don’t have a job.

Studies have found that 70% of rapid re-housing program participants successfully find permanent housing prior to their program exit. The average monthly cost of rapid re-housing was $880, significantly lower than transitional housing ($2,706) or emergency shelter ($4,819).
Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition

What are the biggest risks to unsheltered people right now?

They are at risk of being preyed on by other homeless people and by the police. They’re at risk of all kinds of violence, especially women and trans homeless people.

[Reader’s note: according to the Human Rights Campaign, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans (who are also at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness) with at least 33 people violently killed. Atlanta also saw its deadliest year in decades; both homicides and aggravated assaults spike between 2019 and 2020. In June of 2020, three people experiencing homelessness were murdered during a terrifying 2-week period in which the suspect was caught.]

Although many people are unaware of this, Atlanta is a hot spot for HIV/AIDS transmission. Living with HIV/AIDS and having limited access to healthcare is another danger we’re seeing among unsheltered populations, along with the risk of contracting COVID-19 with nowhere to shelter in place.

What challenges do you face in terms of getting people into housing?

I have a lot of clients with mental health issues that will tell me they don’t want to live in a shelter. They feel if they’re out on the street and having a mental health crisis, they have more freedom. The mindset is, “If I am in the shelter, I’m trapped.” There are some homeless people that feel like the streets are safer.

I constantly find myself saying to clients, ‘You can do this. You have a right to this. Safe housing is a human right. Healthcare is a human right. You have every right to the same things everyone else has.’ Sometimes it’s a battle to convince them of these things because they live on the street and they feel like everyone looks at them like they’re trash. It’s a daily struggle to convince them that they deserve normal things in life.

Home prices in Atlanta have risen at more than twice the rate of household incomes. Only 10% of apartments in Atlanta are affordable to households earning less than $45,000.
Source: Partners for Home

And then there’s the other big challenge: there’s always going to be a greater need than our capacity.

What is the process after we house someone?

When we put people in an apartment, we start all of these processes at once. We help them get to work if they can work. If they can’t work, we help them apply for disability. If they can’t afford food, we get them food stamps. We give them a lot of support to find stability themselves, but the reality is it is in the clients’ hands. We can open all of these doors but it is their job to walk through them. Part of this process is to empower them and make them feel like they can live a normal life.

Stay tuned next week for Part III of this series. To make sure you’re in-the-know about homelessness and hunger issues facing Georgia, sign up for our emails and follow HOPE Atlanta on Facebook and Instagram.

Our vision is to end hunger and homelessness for every Georgian.

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