Program for Atlanta’s homeless men shows work really works

What if I told you we could move scores of homeless men at a time from the streets to self-sufficiency, without taking funds from existing social services, at a cost that’s a fraction of what we spend to serve them now?

And then what if I told you it’s already happening, right here in Atlanta?

There may be no more unsung success around here than Georgia Works, a privately run program for homeless men that recently celebrated moving its 200th man — in just three years — from a life of deprivation and danger into employment and empowerment.

“Georgia Works is not a complicated program, but it’s a tough one,” founder and chairman Bill McGahan said at the program’s graduation ceremony last month. “It’s like running a marathon: It’s not complicated, but it can be grueling.”

The uncomplicated program has three essential rules for its men: They must be, or become, sober. They must not accept handouts from any other source, public or private. And most important, they must work: both unpaid chores around the jail-turned-dormitory where they live in downtown Atlanta, and paid jobs in the community.

If a homeless man commits to follow those rules, Georgia Works provides them with room and board, along with treatment options for addictions, help setting up bank accounts and paying court fines and child support they may owe, GED classes if they lack a diploma, and life-skills counseling. Georgia Works relies on donors, but it is also partially funded by the men themselves, who turn over a portion of their paychecks to cover their expenses. The program also forces them to save some money from each paycheck to ensure they have some financial cushion when they graduate, usually after several months.

Their success has meant more opportunities for others: After moving 18 men into self-sufficiency its first year, Georgia Works graduated 55 the second year and 127 the third. It now has space to house 150 men at night, and its cost per participant has fallen from $17,000 to $2,500 in that time. That’s a bargain compared to public costs of serving the homeless or incarcerating them, which can run tens of thousands of dollars a year.

“When I came to Georgia Works last year, I had absolutely nothing,” says Esau Saddler, a June graduate of the program who spoke at the September graduation. “I felt like nothing. I was lost, and I didn’t know where I was.”

Saddler, who now works at the Ritz-Carlton downtown, acknowledges he isn’t a finished product: “There are some things I’m still learning. But the most important thing I’ve learned is to learn from my mistakes.

“I came from the bottom. And I’m not saying I’m at the top. But I’m flowing … and I can progress, and I can grow.”

Likewise, McGahan says Georgia Works has room to improve: arranging more jobs with employers, better-paying jobs (the average graduate earns $11.50 an hour upon moving to full-time work), and training for higher-level work.

But its progress so far, based on the idea a man can rebuild his own life with help and a willingness to work, is impressive.

“We aim to end chronic homelessness in Atlanta, and I think we can,” McGahan said. “I know we can.”