The dignity of work


For most people, chronic homelessness among men would not be the first choice among problems to tackle in inner-city Atlanta. Millions of dollars in government and charitable programs give some of these men a warm bed at night, but that hasn’t changed the underlying challenges that keep them on the streets.

Yet that’s exactly where Bill McGahan started.

McGahan had an audacious idea: Create a program where “upon graduation the goal is a permanent job and permanent housing for each man.”

“When men enter the program they are typically dependent on drugs and handouts. When they leave, the goal is to never be dependent again.”

In 2013, he created Georgia Works, a nonprofit organization, to implement his goal. To date, 64 formerly homeless men have transformed their lives and become self-sufficient, productive citizens.

The results are even more amazing in light of the challenges. “These men came to us with no ID, no bank account, no phone, no email, no education, addiction issues, no money, no role models and large child support obligations,” McGahan explains. “Even I couldn’t get out of that hole!”

Many have a criminal record related to their condition: trespassing, loitering, possession of drugs, public intoxication or fighting. “Of course you’re going to fight if someone is trying to steal your life savings – which you have to carry around with you because you don’t have a bank account or a home,” he points out.

The key component of Georgia Works is highlighted in its name: work. “I truly believe in the dignity of work and the value and worth of each and every individual,” says McGahan.

The program is modeled after a successful New York City program, Ready, Willing and Able. Every participant is required to work 30-35 hours a week, typically picking up trash around the city. They also must give up all public assistance other than Medicaid and stay clean from drugs and alcohol.

Participants earn about $240 a week. Of that, $100 goes toward room and board. After setting aside $50 a week for savings (required), they are free to spend the rest. For many, it’s the most money they’ve had in a long time and the first time they’ve accumulated savings.

When they aren’t working, the men take classes on soft skills and life skills. An astonishing 95 percent of the graduates are transformed into independent, housed, rent-paying, hardworking individuals who become role models.

Georgia Works acts as a placement service, recruiting employers to hire graduates with the promise of a man who will show up on time and ready to work. They stress this is a business a partnership, not charity.

The jobs are typically tough jobs employers have a hard time filling – think of the “Dirty Jobs” TV series with Mike Rowe. Employers are willing to pay for this service.

Georgia Works was designed as a true social enterprise, with a goal of fully funding operations through the placement fees paid by employers. All this depends, of course, on the ability to attract more employers in order to bring the program to scale.

How many of Atlanta’s nearly 2,000 chronically homeless individuals could this approach help? McGahan estimates that about 25 percent have severe mental illness and need significant intervention beyond Georgia Works’ capacities. “The rest,” McGahan says, “we can help.”

Georgia Works: It’s working.

(For more information about Georgia Works or if you are an employer that would like to participate in the program go to

[Kelly McCutchen is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]