Atlanta aims to end veteran homelessness

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed joined advocates for the homeless on Monday to announce a goal of ending chronic homelessness among military veterans in Atlanta within 15 months.

Meeting that goal will be difficult. About 1,200 homeless veterans live in Atlanta, and more than 400 are thought to be chronically homeless, according to a city-wide count in January 2011.

Chronic homelessness can be compounded by serious health issues, substance abuse, mental illness or reluctance to seek treatment. The federal government defines the chronically homeless as people who have been homeless for more than one year or who have experienced homelessness four or more times in three years.

Only about 18 percent of homeless people fit that definition, but they account for more than half the nation’s spending on homelessness initiatives, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

City officials tout recent successes. Atlanta housed 131 veterans in 100 days by cutting wait times with the help of federal agencies and nonprofits. The plan is to find housing for another 300 chronically homeless veterans by December 2013.

“This is exactly what we should be doing in the city of Atlanta,” Reed said at a press conference at the Vineyards Apartments. “Atlanta should set a national standard. No veteran in the United States of America should be without a home.”

Dwight Fitzgerald, an Air Force veteran, said he fell into homelessness after being laid off from an assembly plant in middle Georgia last year. He sought help at a Veterans Affairs hospital, where staffers helped him get medications for heart and back conditions.

In July, Fitzgerald got a place to stay in Stone Mountain, and he can now afford rent, food and energy. But he worries about the people still on the streets.

“I realized I had a serious problem and needed to do something about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there who need help. Maybe they don’t act like it. You’ve got to step up to the plate and say, ‘I need help.’”

Barrett Griffin, who served in the Marine Corps from 1970 to 1980, was homeless for years before an apartment at Vineyards Apartments and a job at the Georgia Aquarium helped stabilize his life.

“I give God thanks for being here, for another day above ground,” Griffin said. “Everybody goes through rough times. I got back on my feet.”

Plans to deal with homelessness or related problems in Atlanta can be controversial. A proposal in City Council to crack down on aggressive panhandling kicked off a vociferous debate this month about whether six-month jail terms were appropriate. Reed called the legislation punitive, vowing to veto it and advance his own legislation.

On Monday, Reed acknowledged it is hard to find, track and help homeless people because they move around the city during the day, don’t have phone numbers and lack fixed addresses. Next year, the city plans to call on volunteers to help identify and survey homeless people to get a better sense of their needs.

“We can end veteran homelessness if we treat it as a solvable problem,” said Jake Maguire of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, an advocacy group. “Too often, we look around and are overwhelmed.”