Recognize that panhandling, homelessness are not the same

The recent article titled “No walking away from panhandling” made little distinction between homelessness and panhandling. However, our experience at the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness shows that most people who are homeless do not panhandle and that most panhandlers are not homeless.

The regional commission on homelessness — a voluntary collaboration of government, business and faith communities — believes that the solution to long-term homelessness is housing combined with case management. We recently completed our sixth year of the 10-year plan. So far, more than 2,500 new housing units are filled with formerly homeless men, women and children. More than 10,000 formerly homeless people have defeated homelessness through being reunited with family and loved ones.

Collaboration among service providers, an essential aspect of this success, is at an all-time high. The 24/7 Gateway Homeless Services Center, a collaboration of United Way and more than 25 different service providers, is helping homeless people in Atlanta connect to housing, jobs, caseworkers, medical treatment and other services. Job training and placement for those experiencing homelessness have also improved.

The time for putting homeless persons in mass shelters for long periods without adequate resources to address how they came to be there is over.

Anyone seeking help out of homelessness can now begin that journey by calling United Way at 211 or going to the Gateway Center (275 Pryor St. SW; 404-215-6600).

Those who are panhandling illegally should be dealt with by enforcement of applicable laws. If the goal is to address a person’s homelessness, we must fight the temptation to give money to anyone asking for it on the streets, and instead offer to take them to the Gateway Center or call 211 on their behalf.

If you are interested in helping a person end their homelessness, rather than giving money on the streets, help them access services. When we focus on the root causes of homelessness, people can and will succeed.

While we are on the right track, important needs still must be met.

Our community’s fight to end homelessness started with the leadership of Mayor Shirley Franklin. She knew that in order for our community to make a measurable impact on homelessness, local government must be at the table working side by side with the business, nonprofit and faith-based communities.

The next mayor must not only embrace this level of commitment, but must also provide their continued moral and political leadership to aggressively push forward the next steps outlined by the regional commission on homelessness.

The new mayor must build on the proven successes of the Commission, and avoid any temptation to return to the old way of providing only shelter. It is only through dogged determination that we will reach our community’s goal, and Atlanta’s mayor must bring that commitment.

We must expand sustainable support for caseworkers, who are essential for each person who is struggling out of homelessness.

We must strengthen the mental health services for the most vulnerable in our society.

We need to expand our support for women and children.

And we must improve our system of help for those who have served time for their mistakes and are re-entering society.

To meet the needs, we must all get involved, but with the right focus: to end a person’s homelessness.

Horace Sibley is past chairman of the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness.