Moma Sayplay works on repairing a heat pump at the Gables Mills Apartments Monday, February 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Nonprofit hopes to help Atlanta’s homeless find work and homes

A little more than a year ago, Moma Sayplay lived out of his car.

The Liberia native, who moved to Atlanta when he was 11, had been couch surfing at friends’ place after his mother decided to move to California for a fresh start. Sayplay, a student at Atlanta Technical College, decided to stay in Atlanta, but couldn’t quite find his footing.

“My life was out of order, everything I tried to do didn’t work,” he said. “I couldn’t find a stable place to live.”

But then Sayplay, 27, attended a job fair where he was able to find a job and an affordable place to live. Virginia-based nonprofit Shelters to Shutters works to help people like Sayplay find employment and housing.

Moma Sayplay replaces light bulbs while preparing an apartment for renting at the Gables Mills Apartments Monday, February 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Launched in 2016, Shelters to Shutters serves as a pipeline — it screens candidates, who then attend job fairs where they’re hired by real estate companies to work at rental properties as sales representatives or maintenance workers. They are also given housing at the properties where they work.

New hires typically make $15.50 per hour and receive a 70% discount on rent during the 12-month program, which works to transition participants to self-sufficiency.

Participants in the program are also provided financial management classes to encourage them to save money.

Founder Chris Finlay got the idea for the organization after reading a magazine article about the number of homeless people in North Carolina that wanted to work but couldn’t get a job. It dawned on him that the apartment industry could help with that.

“The standard in our business is that if someone works on-site, they get a discount … to live on the property,” Finlay said. “We kind of kill two birds with one stone.” About 85 % of program participants are promoted within a year, he said.

Many of those in the program are what Finlay calls “situationally homeless,” meaning an unfortunate event that led to them being homeless.

Moma Sayplay picks up the supplies he will need for the day while working around the Gables Mills Apartments Monday, February 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer

The organization operates in 12 cities, including Atlanta. Since it started, the nonprofit has helped about 350 people find jobs and housing. Last year, 23 people found employment through the job fairs in Atlanta, which has more than 3,200 homeless people in the city, according to a 2019 Point-In-Time homelessness study. 

One of them was Sayplay, who was hired last March as a groundskeeper at a Midtown property owned by Gables Residential. Since then, Sayplay has been promoted to make ready technician, who prepares units for new renters at the company’s Cumberland property.

“I’m really glad I took this path because I enjoy working and learning,” he said, adding he hopes to one day work for Georgia Power.

This year, Shelters to Shutters hopes to expand their reach to help 100 participants in Atlanta.

“This is how we really solve the challenges of homelessness,” Finlay said. “We can’t help everybody, but as a market-corporate type solution, we can have an impact on homelessness.”

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