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Economy threatens cities' fights vs. homelessness

ATLANTA - Beneath the glowing red curlicues of the Coca-Cola headquarters sign, case worker Hylda Jackson bargains with one of Atlanta's left behind.

'Are you ready, right now, this morning?' she says, kneeling beside a white-bearded man.

Harry Byrd's rumpled form is enveloped by the odor of stale beer, even before dawn.

'To do what?' he drawls.

'To go to a place to live. Are you ready right now?' Jackson presses.

A yes would land Byrd in his own apartment, surrounded by people ready to smooth his life's kinks. No, and he'll remain among the 750,000 homeless sprinkled across the nation's streets and shelters each night.

He stirs, but doesn't get up. Jackson moves on. She has other sidewalks to cover, other parks to check, other bridges to pause beneath. This tug-of-war is bound to increase as the economy pushes more people into homelessness.

In Atlanta and other top destinations for the homeless, a sense of urgency has settled over the efforts of advocates such as Jackson.

The recession is catching many of the nation's largest cities in the middle of pioneering 10-year plans to drastically reduce the number of chronically homeless, city by city, by sweeping parks and alleys for men and women and channeling them into apartments with built-in case workers.

Weary Wall Street donors have grown reluctant to open their pocketbooks to charity, and budget cuts have choked state support. By the time those dollars start flowing again, cities could be looking at starting from scratch.

Rampant foreclosures, meanwhile, mean more Americans without a house, pressuring agencies with new cases as they struggle to reach the long-term homeless that so dramatically drain resources.

'This is the start of tough times,' says Protip Biswas, executive director of United Way Atlanta's Regional Commission on Homelessness, a coalition of partner groups that includes Jackson, who works in the city's Gateway Center shelter. Biswas is asking his own case workers to nearly double their load.

The economy is hitting all sectors hard. When your goal is eroding a phenomenon directly linked to poverty, however, a crisis this deep delivers an extra gut punch.

'We're sort of holding our breath,' says Steve Berg, with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a leader in forming the anti-homelessness plans.

'Despite the good work a lot of these communities have done with their 10-year plans, we're probably going to have a time when there's more pressure on homelessness.'

Five years ago, Philip Mangano, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, got fed up with homeless numbers that had risen for decades.

'How many homeless people (there were), where they came from, how long they stayed homeless, what were the initiatives that actually worked to reduce homelessness - we didn't know,' Mangano says. 'We were groping in the dark.'

So he urged 100 mayors in 2003 to formulate plans to end homelessness within a decade. They would focus on the chronic homeless, defined as those with a disabling condition experiencing long-term or multiple instances of homelessness and who, activists say, suck up half of available resources.

Leaders would measure progress through benchmarks of people staying off the streets, rather than shelter beds filled. Regions began adopting a strategy placing homeless into their own apartments, then offering help, rather than vice versa.

Immediate housing calms some of the most troubled clients, according to the National Alliance, and double-digit drops in homelessness reported in Chicago, Denver, New York and Norfolk, Va., among other cities, seem to back them up.

'We have some remarkable accomplishments here,' says New York Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess, pointing to a 25 percent reduction in street homeless since 2005.

Mangano says more than 50,000 units of housing targeting the homeless have been created over the past five years; the goal is 150,000 units by 2014.

Atlanta's 5-year-old program is considered one of the most successful - it's created 1,600 units of supportive housing for the chronically homeless. Of 750 people recently tracked through the program, 90 percent remained housed after a year.

In turn, chronic homelessness is down 16 percent in the metro area, the United Way reports.

About once a month at the Coca Cola park, a bus idles along the sidewalk, ready to carry all the down-and-out men and women whom volunteers like Jackson can round up. They'll go to Leonard House, a complex of modest apartments where groups share bedrooms, kitchens and a new start.

More case workers will work on their deeper issues, reuniting clients with family members, connecting them with drug treatment or helping obtain disability benefits. The most responsive participants can eventually earn a one-bedroom apartment, and organizers say some are on their own within a year.

Atlanta secured more than $50 million in federal funds earmarked for homeless efforts within the past five years.

'Atlanta has been doing a good job - that's why the resources have been increasing,' Mangano says.

At United Way, however, Biswas worries about how precarious that progress is considering how quickly the money could run out. The organization spends about $10,000 a year supporting each person in its shelter-to-home programs, using a combination of federal, state and private funding.

United Way Atlanta has roughly $9 million in reserve funds to fund operational expenses, grants and the 'Street to Home' program, projected to serve more than 250 people at a cost of nearly $4 million during the next two years.

State funds are often used to hire case managers, and private funds fill in the gaps. Both sources are on the decline: The state recently cut $300,000 allocated for case managers, and while community donations have helped sustain the program beyond its seed fund, the group also is bracing for cuts there.

'Right now we have a challenge grant where one donor has offered us a half-million dollars, provided we can do a one-to-one match,' Biswas says. 'But the normal foundations are telling us they won't have that much to give.'

The bottom line isn't on Jackson's mind as she tramps across the grass of a small park in downtown Atlanta, determined to get people off the streets.

Byrd, the homeless man Jackson has approached, doesn't know or trust the nosy woman with the clipboard. He takes her number scribbled on a tattered slip of paper and promises to call.

This morning, he isn't ready to go home.