In January 2012, Mayor Kasim Reed launched an initiative to dramatically reduce street homelessness in Atlanta.
Atlanta is in the eighth year of its ten-year plan to end homelessness. Like many other cities, we have invested a tremendous amount of time and resources to this end, and have made great strides in galvanizing our community and launching a list of solid initiatives. Also like other cities, the recession and rising unemployment and foreclosure rates have undermined efforts to move the needle and the homeless count has remained flat.
In January 2012, Mayor Kasim Reed launched an initiative to dramatically reduce street homelessness in Atlanta. As leader of this new effort, I was immediately struck by the question: “Do we strive to build bigger and better programs, more housing, better services, or is there another way to get ahead of the curve?”
Homelessness Creates No-Win Situations
One afternoon, a woman who was homeless walked in to my office and helped me think more clearly about the answer. I will call her Ann. God only knows how she found me because my office is in an obscure part of City Hall, behind a door marked “Streets and Highways.” She told me she’d lost her job and then her home when her mortgage rose almost 50%. She tried to live in motels, but couldn’t sustain that so started living in her car to avoid exposing her 15- year-old daughter to a shelter.
Unfortunately, her daughter was taken into state custody when they were found living in the car. And Ann was told she was “crazy.” In her crisp Caribbean accent, Ann assured me, “Ms. Lampley, I am not crazy! I was trying to protect my child!”
There may be different versions to this story depending on the story teller, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I, or any other parent I knew, wouldn’t also choose a car over a shelter. I also wondered how we would react if every inch of our security was gone, if each tomorrow was completely uncertain, and if the one thing still within control―protecting our children―was taken out of our hands. I wondered if we might not appear just a bit “crazy.”
I immediately wanted to help Ann find a home so she could get her daughter back. After all, that’s what we do with our influence, we fix things. We fix people and we fix situations. So, I started dialing every executive director I knew who could fix this.
After I failed to reach the third one, she stopped me. She said, “I don’t need your help. I want you to HEAR me.” She then leaned over my desk, looked straight in my eyes, and said: “I-want-you-to-fix the SYSTEM! In your position, you have the power to fix the SYSTEM!”
Fixing Homelessness Means Fixing the System
She proceeded to tell me her experiences navigating our “system”―a system seemingly full of unintended consequences and unintended barriers. As I listened to her, I concluded that Ann was not crazy at all. She was likely more lucid than most people―homeless or otherwise. And she was right. She didn’t need fixing, she needed me to remove barriers and create opportunity, to make sure that policies and procedures aren’t creating consequences that prolong rather than resolve homelessness.
I’m thankful that Ann found me. I feel an obligation to ensure that as we work to dramatically reduce street homelessness, we are looking across government entities and providers and having one conversation around a shared strategy. And that we are funding against that shared strategy. And that we are tracking performance to ensure that, at the end of the day, the unsheltered are measurably better off.
Consequently, we’ve turned our focus to the end results, measurable outcomes, and a systems approach with a handful of high impact initiatives. Additionally, we’ve put together an advisory board and planning team that represents decision makers in every aspect of homelessness: housing, behavioral health, faith, foundation, business, providers, and state and local governments.
Will we dramatically reduce street homelessness? Only God knows for sure. Or maybe Ann…
Susan Lampley, Innovation Project Officer, leads the Mayor’s homelessness initiative for the City of Atlanta.