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Atlanta's Other Olympians

Monday, July 1, 1996

          In the late 18th century, Catherine the Great's favorite field marshal and reputed lover, Grigori Potemkin, built phony villages one block deep throughout Russia's Black Sea provinces to give the tsarina a false sense of the region's prosperity. Two hundred years later, cynical denizens of Atlanta's poorest communities might wonder if the Olympic stadium and the surrounding Olympic village amount to a modern Potemkin village.

         Like any Olympic host, Atlanta is putting on its best face for its visitors. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games is spending $1.7 billion and employing 99,000 workers to show the world the best of Atlanta and America. Indeed, the underwriting of Atlanta's expenses by home-grown corporate powerhouses such as Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola demonstrates one of Atlanta's greatest strengths: As one of America's entrepreneurial capitals, Atlanta is a thriving commercial center. A bastion of black enterprise, the city also boasts many distinguished universities and the world-champion Braves baseball franchise.

         Like most American metropolises, however, Atlanta also suffers from staggering urban blight. With 27 percent of its overall population, and 43 percent of its children, living in poverty, Atlanta rivals cities like Newark, New Jersey, as a center of decay and degradation. Forty-two percent of its households are headed by single women. Of America's 100 largest cities, Atlanta ranks second in its rate of violent crime.

         Many of the organizations charged with battling these social scourges have bungled. Take The Atlanta Project (TAP), the multi-million-dollar nonprofit founded by Jimmy Carter four years ago to organize and stimulate 20 of Atlanta's most depressed communities. An internal audit of the organization's activities, released in January 1995, criticizes TAP for cultivating little input from the communities it serves, imposing cookie-cutter solutions from a bureaucratic central office, and focusing too much of its resources on small feel-good events like community clean-ups. TAP has faltered so badly that it recently eliminated all of its 89 full-time positions as part of a major restructuring effort. TAP's greatest achievement to date: consolidating application forms for social services from 64 pages to 8. All of this for $33.6 million.

         If TAP typifies the flashy, top-down approach to community renewal, what follow are stories about the squads of private agencies engaged in a bareknuckled bout with poverty, homelessness, and crime. Unlike many nonprofits serving America's cities, these are not publicly funded extensions of government agencies. Nor do they receive the fanfare of an Olympic event. A tour of some of these ragtag, innovative organizations, each the product of dedicated citizenship, reveals what works in easing urban pathologies--one person, one family, one neighborhood at a time.

Victory for the Homeless

          Homelessness is one of Atlanta's most persistent social problems. Task Force for the Homeless, an Atlanta nonprofit that runs a hotline for the homeless, received requests for shelter from about 24,000 individuals last year alone--a thousand more than in the previous year and two thousand more than in 1993. "We need folks who come at the homeless problem from a tough-love approach," argues Russ Hardin, of the Atlanta-based Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, which gave $3.9 million last year to organizations fighting homelessness.

         They don't get much tougher than the church-based Victory House at 979 Boulevard SE, run by pastor Craig Soaries. Though it's the only shelter in Atlanta, according to Task Force, that admits people while they're still high--most of its residents are alcohol or drug abusers--they don't stay that way for more than an evening. The pastor's detoxification program is simple: Anyone who expects to receive Victory House's assistance must quit cold turkey.

         The men's regimen has the feel of a boot-camp. Residents must wake by 7 a.m. and be at work by 9 a.m. Because ready cash is a quick ticket back to drug use, residents cannot work for money their first 30 days. Soaries gives them maintenance work on Victory House property and has them help with the shelter's fast-food, used-furniture, and used clothing businesses--all excellent incubators for learning job skills. After 30 days, those who are ready seek full-time employment while still at the shelter. They pay $50 in rent and place one-third of their salaries in a mandatory savings account. The men must observe a curfew, forswear smoking and cursing, and seek permission to leave the premises.

         Last year Victory House took in about five hundred men and provided fifteen hundred with food and clothing. It has helped 12,000 men since it opened in 1992. Hundreds are off the streets and in the workplace: According to an internal study, 75 percent of the men who participate hold down a job and stay drug- and alcohol-free at least six months to a year after leaving the three-month program.

         Soaries credits the program's spiritual content more than its regimen for its long-term success. Though men are not required to make a faith commitment to stay at the shelter, all must attend worship service Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. They must also participate in group prayer and counseling on Thursday and hold daily devotionals.

         "I do not apologize for who I am," says Soaries. "I have no other answer to addiction than the Scriptures."

         Ed Lindsey is 40 years old and had failed at drug rehabilitation three times before coming to Victory House. Says Lindsey, "Soaries was the first person to tell me that I didn't have a drug or alcohol problem but a problem with my inner spirit." Lindsey has been clean for eight months. To Soaries the message is clear: "Without a spiritual element, we would not be successful."

         Soaries' Bible-based approach to helping the homeless compels him to avoid most government funding. Most government contracts, for example, would prohibit his program from requiring attendance at worship services. As a result, Victory House gets 85 percent of its $152,000 budget from corporate and individual donors. The remainder comes from government contracts that do not infringe upon the spiritual content of the pastor's program--such as funds for certain capital expenditures.

         A sign in front of Soaries's nondenominational church reads "Tired of Just Going to Church? Expect a Miracle Tonite!" Miracles seem to be happening in the inner lives of the residents of 979 Boulevard SE.

Four Walls and a Dream

          Many advocates for the homeless insist that a lack of affordable housing is the principal cause of long-term homelessness. The success of groups like Victory House demonstrates that, for those literally "on the streets," drug and alcohol addiction is often the culprit. But there are many low-income families, living in cramped yet expensive apartments and run-down housing projects, who know first-hand how little decent, affordable housing there really is. For these people, homeownership is a dream out of reach.

         Just ask Constance Vining, a working divorced mother of six struggling to make ends meet. "I never thought I'd be a homeowner," Vining says. "I never thought I'd be able to scrape together a down payment."

         She didn't have to. At 46, Vining has become the first member of her family ever to own a home. It wouldn't have happened without Charis Community Housing, a nonprofit urban-development program helping Atlanta's working poor (families earning $18,000 a year on average) become homeowners.

         Charis helped Vining finance and build a new house in Atlanta's Summerhill neighborhood in exchange for an in-kind down payment: her "sweat equity" in helping to construct her own home. Now Vining pays $296 a month on a zero-interest loan for a one-story, three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Previously, she had rented a run-down, two-bedroom apartment that cost her $550 a month and left her nothing to show for it. "Now I have something to leave my children. My dream has come true," she says.

         Charis is a subsidiary of a community-development corporation called FCS Urban Ministries, which coordinates the ideas and resources of local and suburban churches. (FCS stands for Family Consultation Services, although the organization is recognized only by its initials.) Charis has built 128 such homes since 1982. It is supported by three thousand volunteers, and 99 percent of its funds come from the private sector.

         Candidates for Charis housing are put through a rigorous screening process. Charis reviews credit reports, scrutinizes character references, assesses current living conditions, and interviews candidate families--twice. It chooses only eight out of every 100 applicants. Those selected must participate in seminars on everything from home maintenance to budgeting, and receive financing deals similar to Vining's. In many ways, Charis follows the model of Habitat for Humanity, the low-income homebuilder based in Americus, Georgia. But there are a few interesting twists.

         Charis builds houses in mixed-income bunches called "subdivisions." Only one-third of the homes built on Charis-bought property are targeted for the working poor. Charis volunteers and future homeowners build these homes. But Charis invites outside contractors to develop the rest of the property, building one-third of the remaining homes for lower middle-income families and one-third for middle-income families and above. "We don't want to recreate low-income neighborhoods," says executive director Nancy Flippin.

         Moreover, Charis's commitment to its beneficiaries doesn't end when the last door is hung. "You don't change somebody's life just because you put them in a new house," says Flippin. Charis homeowners make a commitment to maintain their homes and are subject to surprise inspections and foreclosure if they don't keep their end of the bargain. Charis relies on an informal network of volunteers living in the communities it serves to help Charis beneficiaries tackle the challenges of homeownership and make sure Charis homeowners succeed.

          The overwhelming number do succeed. Program officials have had to foreclose on only five homes. "I was even happy to file a tax return when I could first file as a homeowner," laughs Vining. Charis homeowners in Summerhill once banded together to shut down a crack house.

          Aretha Smith, a 36-year resident of Summerhill, sums up what homeowners like Vining mean to her neighborhood: "Most of them are working people over there. They're bringing the neighborhood back. Whatever they do, I just hope they keep building."

Alternative to Failing Schools

          As in many big cities, Atlanta's public-school system is costly, yet not terribly successful. It spends $6,495 per student--more than school districts in Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles--and its students on average score just 760 on the combined SAT, below the 30th percentile on both the math and verbal sections.

          Mirroring organizations in Indianapolis, San Antonio, Milwaukee, and other cities, the Children's Education Foundation (CEF) gave scholarships to 128 Atlanta school children this year to help them escape this system. CEF students now attend 45 private, mostly religiously affiliated schools and one suburban public school. Each scholarship covers half of a student's tuition up to $3,000; the average stipend is about $2,000.

         CEF was founded with a $1-million grant from an anonymous private philanthropist, who has donated an additional $300,000 to cover the foundation's operating expenses and to ensure that his original investment goes directly to foundation scholarships. Families of four earning less than $28,000 per year and families of two earning less than $18,500 are eligible for scholarships, and students are awarded stipends on a first-come, first-served basis.

         "My two oldest children were in public schools for two years and they had a very hard time," says Sandra Carter, a 16-year teaching veteran and mother of five, of her children's experience at Dodson Drive Elementary School. "My son was beaten up almost every day, and my daughter wasn't learning." Jason Grandison, a sixth-grader who attended West Clayton Elementary School, in College Park, recalls similar experiences. One boy even brought a gun to school. "I didn't learn much," says Jason, who had homework only one night a week and complains that his classes were too large for teachers to afford him much attention.

         Now Jason attends St. Anthony's Catholic School, in Atlanta's West End. Jason, who isn't Catholic, trots to school every day in his uniform--a yellow polo shirt and blue slacks. With class size averaging 15 students, Jason and his fellow students receive plenty of individual attention. He is kept busy after school with tutoring sessions and extracurricular activities--opportunities missing at his old school. There is no violence at St. Anthony's; rules are strictly enforced. And Jason gets homework every night. "Even Fridays," Jason says.

         The result: Jason's grades are up, he is more engaged in school, and he has stayed out of trouble. CEF president Chuck Johnston reports that every recipient has improved his or her performance while on scholarship. None has ever had a scholarship terminated for poor grades or bad behavior. But the attention, discipline, and academic training that students receive at CEF schools only partly explain these academic achievements. Scholarships normally cover only about half of a student's tuition costs because parental involvement is considered critical to the program's success. "We have found the success rate is considerably higher when the parent is making a sacrifice," Johnston says.

         Jason Grandison's mom, a single parent earning just $12,000 a year, has moved them into a single-bedroom apartment so they can afford Jason's $3,200 tuition. With that kind of love, it's hard to imagine that Jason will pass up his opportunity, or that his mother will let him.

         Parents don't seem to mind. "Education is a partnership, which means parents must do their share," says parent Quinette Igherighe. And with that attitude, one man's philanthropy is becoming a winning investment. Says parent Gladys Porter, "For the future, in return for his money, he's going to get a lawyer, a teacher, and an engineer--my three kids."

Altruism for Credit

          In any large city, hundreds of children drop out of school each year and get into trouble with the law. Metropolitan Atlanta's juvenile courts monitor 4,200 children on any given day through detention, probation, and counseling services. Most of these young offenders graduate neither from school nor from crime-ridden streets: Nearly 60 percent of them become repeat offenders, and 30 percent eventually move on to the adult court system.

         Clayton County's experience with juvenile offenders is typical of the metropolitan area. In 1995 alone, juvenile court there received about 3,400 youth offenders for misdemeanor and felony offenses. Clayton County probation officers are each responsible for as many as 250 juvenile offenders.

         So when local karate instructor Debbie Swank approached the juvenile court, offering to work with young offenders, harried veteran probation officer Suzanne Igler recalls saying, "This is a waste of my time. Let me go back to my work." Now Igler volunteers for a private agency that Swank founded to help the county's youngest delinquents.

         Swank founded Hearts to Nourish Hope, based 20 minutes southwest of downtown Atlanta, to provide troubled teens with unconditional love and a sense of family. A labor of money as well as love, Debbie started Hearts with funds from her karate school, American Tang Soo Do. Now Hearts takes in 60 to 75 juveniles on probation a month. The centerpiece of its program is a food pantry operated totally by the kids.

         Working the pantry gives the teens valuable job training. They must report to work on time, maintain the facility (which doubles as Swank's karate studio), manage finances, take inventory, and solicit donations.

         They also abide by a strict set of rules. Time earned toward their community-service requirements can be canceled if they shirk business responsibilities, disrespect their elders, wear gang clothing, or stir up mischief.

         Anyone who has received food more than once is required to volunteer at Hearts. "We don't want to just give out food," says Amber, 15. "If you're trying, okay. But if you're just going to sit around, then you're not going to get our food."

         But the pantry is much more than just a job-training program for wayward youth. The experience transforms the children, many of whom come from broken families. "Sometimes I'll come here feeling gloomy and mad at someone or something," says "T," a 15-year-old who came to Hearts after committing five burglaries. "But when someone comes for a basket [of food], it makes you feel good to have helped somebody. "

         Hearts's success is best gauged by the number of teens who participate in the program but don't have to. More than one-third of the teens who perform their community service through Hearts come back after their time is up.

         Consider Kristy Brown, who has been incarcerated six times. On January 31, she completed 95 days in prison for totaling an uninsured car while drunk. Since her release, she has remained clean, is working as an apprentice in a hair salon, and has just taken her GED exam. She attributes her recent victories to Hearts. "This place has made a real difference. Now I want to own my own hair salon and work with teens who have had problems like mine--to give them the help I've been given here."

Hammering Home Citizenship

          A consortium of construction firms is employing some of the entrepreneurial energy that has made Atlanta famous to build--literally--a better city.

         A few years ago, FCS Urban Ministries wanted to convert GlenCastle, a three-story, 18th-century stockade, into affordable housing for the working poor. Atlanta's 11 largest building contractors--normally fierce competitors--collaborated on the project. They charged no overhead, no fees, and earned no profit. And they engaged in what project organizer Chris Humphreys half-jokingly calls "competitive begging": They convinced lumber yards, lighting stores, and other suppliers like Georgia Pacific, Home Depot, and Lithonia to donate materials or sell them to the contractors at cost. FCS trimmed its project expenses from an estimated $3.5 million to $2.5 million, a savings of nearly 30 percent.

         Now GlenCastle, with its three-foot-thick stone walls and an imposing watch tower, houses 125 people in 68 efficiency apartments. The residents include the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, recovering addicts, the elderly, and single-parent families.

         "When we finished GlenCastle, no one expected it to keep going," says Humphreys. "But under their own initiative, the contractors got together and said, 'let's keep it up.' "

         In honor of its first project, the consortium calls itself GlenCastle Constructors, Inc. Over the last six years, it has built some of the most important nonprofit social-service ventures in Atlanta.

         On land donated by Georgia Pacific, for example, they built Camp Twin Lakes--a 250-acre wooded summer oasis for kids suffering from chronic illnesses like cystic fibrosis, cancer, asthma, and kidney disease. They equipped the camp with a mini-hospital (including dialysis machines), and a wheelchair-accessible pool. GlenCastle delivered the project for $1.2 million less than it would have cost at market rates. Now about 2,000 children and 500 volunteers enjoy this privately operated and funded camp each summer. "Kids literally survive to get to their week at camp," says one camp counselor. "For some of them, it's the last fun thing they do." GlenCastle can finance its projects as cheaply as it does in part because it will not work for groups that receive government funds. If it did, federal law would mandate that it pay "prevailing union wages"--that is, above-market wages. Instead, union and nonunion workers labor side by side for the same wages. They also avoid mountains of paperwork. "We really don't do reporting," says Humphreys. "We don't want to explain how we bought paint when we got half of it for free."

         These companies can also afford to divert their manpower and resources to GlenCastle projects because participation on a project by all 11 companies minimizes the burden incurred by any single company.

         Some still marvel to watch the city's leading construction firms collaborate on nonprofit projects. "I would have run over half these guys before the GlenCastle project," says Jimmy Humphries, the chairman of Humphries and Co. The 11 GlenCastle contractors beat each other up each day for 80 percent of the Atlanta construction market. But when it comes to helping the city's neediest, they have put their differences aside and their bulldozers together for nine major projects, with more planned.

         The list of Atlanta's successful nonprofits doesn't stop here. There is Birthright International, which persuades 85 percent of the two thousand women who visit its Atlanta office annually for free pregnancy tests to bring their children to term. There is also Genesis Shelter, which provides transitional housing to homeless families with newborns and teaches 60 percent of them to achieve independence once they leave.

         All of these agencies share three keys to success. First, they are dedicated. They have to be, because they operate on shoestring budgets and rely heavily on volunteers and the 80-hour work weeks their leaders put in. Second, they are demanding--of their beneficiaries as well as themselves. And third, they are independent. Unencumbered by the regulations that come with government social-service contracts, they are free to be innovative and flexible.

         Much of Atlanta's nonprofit community, however, rejects these lessons of effective social outreach. The Open Door Community, a co-operative of Christians dedicated to serving the homeless, is philosophically opposed to helping the poor help themselves, says resident volunteer Todd Chioffi. With Task Force, it protests violations of "homeless rights," such as ordinances against aggressive pan handling and loitering; and it rallies for the city to install public urinals so that, as one man living in the Open Door Community sloganizes, the homeless can "pee for free with dignity."

         The Metropolitan Atlanta Community Foundation, which hands out $12 million a year to groups like Task Force, Atlanta Legal Aid, and Georgians for Choice, refuses to give money to faith-based charities because "no one has the right to tie social services to religion." Says executive director Alicia Philipp, "In my mind that's preying on people."

         Whatever their rationale, much of the city's corporate and foundation philanthropy remains disconnected from the real gold-medal winners of Atlanta's nonprofit sector. This gap is costly both in human terms and in spiritual terms: It allows social ills to persist and prevents needy Atlantans from sharing in the dreams of achievement the Olympics inspire. But should these nonprofits accept the torch that organizations like Victory House, Charis, and GlenCastle hold out for them, they will be able to tackle the truly Olympian task of building not a Potemkin village but an Atlanta of flourishing, vibrant communities.