Atlanta-based shelters explain why homelessness is more than just needing a job

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Sobering statistics show how many people are homeless in Atlanta, but not all the reasons why. In Atlanta, out of the over 7000 homeless people in our city, 2000 sleep on the streets at night.

In a phenomenon that is as much a health crisis as it is an economic one, some organizations are tackling the problem head-on, to put an end to the epidemic and help Atlantans understand along the way.

Because of our high homeless population, Atlanta has been named one of the neediest cities in Atlanta, according to WalletHub. The financial services website placed Atlanta fourth on the list, following Detroit, Brownsville, Texas and Memphis respectively.

Though Atlanta does have a large homeless population, it decreased by 16.5 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to National Alliance to End Homelessness’ 2016 The State of Homelessness in America report.

The Cause: Bad Decisions or Gradual Dysfunctions?

As reported by HomeAid, the vast majority of homeless people have been thrust into the streets by a series of events, or a life altering event that was unexpected and unplanned for.

“Homeless is when you have no stable residence that your name is attached to for a rental agreement,” Dr. Karyn Woods, Director of Operations at Zaban Paradies Center (ZPC), said. “You can be chronically homeless if you have three or more periods in the course of one year where you find yourself without stable housing.”

Homelessness is caused by tragic life events such as loss of loved ones, domestic violence, job loss and familial issues such as divorce or family disputes. Occurrences like these can transform someone from being a person in a somewhat stable environment to a daily life in which a place to sleep is not promised.

Also responsible for the problem is the slew of untreated mental illnesses, health disorders and disabilities.

“If my father passes away and I have a breakdown because I don’t know how to deal with it, I will start to do something to make me feel better,” Dr. Woods said. “That could be drugs or alcohol. And in the use of those drugs or alcohol, my work begins to fail, and then I end up losing my job.”

Dr. Woods said a person losing their job could lead to them not being able to cope with the world, therefore leading to depression and not wanting to leave the house. Those suffering from depression do not always seek help.

The Relationship between Homelessness and Substance Abuse

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), there is a common stereotype perpetuated among the public that the homeless population are all alcoholics and drug abusers. While a high percentage suffer from substance abuse, the issue is both a cause and result of homelessness.

“A lot of times people who are in their substance abuse will exhaust all of their resources to fuel their addiction and end up homeless,” Rachel Reynolds, PR Manager at Atlanta Mission, said.

Substance abuse is a cause in that it disrupts family relationships and can also cause a person to lose their job. For someone that is already struggling to pay their bills, this only makes the situation worse. The NCH reported that a 2008 survey by the United States Conference of Mayors asked 25 cities for their top three causes of homelessness.

Sixty-eight percent of the cities reported that substance abuse was the single greatest cause of homelessness for single adults. However, in many situations substance abuse is the result of experiencing homelessness.

“I know people who fell into using [because] it was just habitual based on their surroundings and that resulted in the loss of a lot of other things in their life,” Adrienne Bumpers, Atlanta Mission’s The Potter’s House (TPH) Manager of Partnerships, said.

TPH, located on a 550-acre farm, does not strictly serve homeless men, but men suffering from substance abuse that might be homeless as well. It functions as a long-term residential discipleship program that serves as many as 180 men.

“Thirty-four percent of the men had active substance abuse, and 60 percent of the men that we worked with at the time needed mental health services,” Bumpers said. “Seventy-eight percent experienced a traumatic event in their life.”

Bumpers said this data was important to the organization because at that time, they did not have trauma-informed care they were offering to those they served. This led them to believing trauma was an issue they needed to further support.

“Some people say which comes first, the mental health or the substance abuse?” Dr. Woods said. “It’s kind of hard to say which one comes first, because they’re both the result of something else. The something else is the trauma. The trauma comes first, and then the other two things.”

Employment Barriers the Less Fortunate Face

“A common misconception is that the homeless just need a job. While this is true this is only putting a band aid on the situation,” Reynolds said. “There are reasons why they have not been able to keep a job such as mental illness, trauma, relationships issues, lack of communication, or addiction.”

The NCH reported that many members of the homeless population have to “combat barriers such as limited transportation and reduced access to educational and training programs.” In a competitive job market, seeking a job as a homeless person is often an insurmountable barrier.

According to NCH, mental and physical illnesses also play a vital role in employment participation of homeless people or those at risk of becoming so. Having an illness or disability sometimes results in having difficulty while looking for work.

“Some people have mental health where it prevents them from working, so all they can do is wait for their social security claim to be approved,” Dr. Woods said.

Dr. Woods said criminal history and maintaining a job are the two biggest employment barriers for the clients at ZPC. Incarceration is also a factor in the inability to secure a job, and can decrease the types of jobs available to those who have been in prison or jail. Woods said Georgia is one of 17 states that do not expunge felonies from a person’s criminal record.

“A lot of our homeless population never develop skillsets to properly help them maintain a job,” Dr. Woods said. “They can get jobs all day long if they really want one, but can they keep the job?”

Dr. Woods said the people interview well and get the job, but then might not know how to successfully deal with conflict at work – so then their hours get cut, they quit or get fired.

ZPC, an Atlanta shelter for homeless couples that is solely funded by donations and grants, helped 55 percent of their residents to get jobs while they were enrolled in the shelter’s program. Fifty-eight percent of their residents found permanent housing.

Homeless people typically have no access to technology. In a fast-paced, developing world, this is a handicap when searching for work since many companies have and are adapting to a tech-heavy society. Knowledge of technology and computers is sometimes required in certain fields. Although there are public access computers, some homeless people “lack computer knowledge and fear failure.”

Over the years, homeless shelters have incorporated into their services programs to help residents with job training and searching. Atlanta Mission utilizes a vocational training program in order to help prepare clients for obtaining and maintaining a job, to receive their GED and polish their resume.

“We work hard to let our men practice some of those pieces they’ve said ‘I need help in relearning,’” Bumpers said. “We’re intentional about it before they transition on. We work on them building community and then developing vocational skills.”

The Best Ways to Help – No Quick Fix 

Solutions for the homelessness issue have had to develop slowly, and sometimes uncomfortably. Whether homelessness is a public responsibility has been debated for some time, but organizational efforts remind citizens of the ways they can help.

“Treat them like a human being, look them in the eye, and refer them to people who can help, such as the local homeless shelter,” Reynolds said. “If we all help a little bit we can make a difference. This could mean you donate your clothes, you volunteer, [or] you give financially to a shelter.”

Reynolds said that the best advice she can give to the public is to stop making assumptions and get to know people in this situation, in addition to educating yourself and finding someone or an organization that does know how to help.

“The public responsibility comes from people not being able to find themselves in situations where they then become homeless,” Dr. Woods said. “For example, raising minimum wage. If people can have sustainable income to the point where they can provide for their family, the likelihood of them becoming homeless becomes less.”

Dr. Woods said using strategic ways to keep drugs from entering communities is another way to help, and that the public responsibility is to have systems in place beforehand that keep people from becoming homeless.

Atlanta Mission, a Christian nonprofit ministry, has grown from a small soup kitchen to a multi-facility organization that serves over 1000 homeless people in Atlanta with five shelters and other programs.

“One of the big focuses of our organization is to build friendships and relationships with our client, so that we can really build trust,” Bumpers said. “Be able to hear and to listen deeply to what are those experiences to bring you to the place that you’re at now.”

There are many ways to help homeless people, whether it is with housing stability or with them not wanting to use drugs anymore.

“We have relational deficiency, because we’re more connected and less connected in the same sense,” Bumpers said. “We’re more connected based on our technology but we’re less emotionally connected with people in real relationships. Because of that we’ve created a very individualistic society.”

Bumpers said that because of this, most people have less of an inclination to help those holding up signs on the street or asking people for money.

“We feel called to make sure we focus on that relational aspect, so we need to do that with each other,” Bumpers said.

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