Federal dollars changing Veterans lives in metro Atlanta - CBS46 News

Federal dollars changing Veterans lives in metro Atlanta

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(Source: WGCL) (Source: WGCL)

I recently learned how federal dollars are changing Veterans' lives across metro Atlanta. 

This story begins over cocktails at the Fabulous Fox. A lovely crowd of businessmen and women sit with a sprinkling of military officers.

My dinner companion in dress blues has more decorations than my last Christmas Tree, and the confidence that helped him earn them. He speaks eloquently of the strength and courage of the fighting men and women who protect our freedoms. He reminds us forcefully of the tragedy that some of them are homeless on America's streets after their service ends.

The philanthropist and friend who brought me here, Kirk Elifson, is a potent force at HOPE Atlanta. He encourages me to understand how the programs I knew as Travelers Aid is now pulling every possible do-good organization into a coalition to help street people get their health, heads and hearts back in the game of life. 

A slim, bow-tied Veteran takes the stage of the Egyptian Ballroom. Chokel Taylor describes his military career in Bosnia, and then the self-destructive life he led that cost him his family and his home. His chilling tale of street life began to end when he chose to quit drinking and accept the help HOPE offers.

Today, he is on the board of HOPE Atlanta.

I'm wondering where these Veterans go when they decide to leave the streets. That's when Aaron Goldman walked onto the stage. Sober suit, Wisconsin accent.

Where's the passion?

In his story.

Goldman is probably the landlord of somebody you know. He put together a group of Atlanta's biggest real estate companies renting and selling apartments and single family homes around the country. It's a shame to have any vacancies not filled by the men and women who have the strength to wear our uniforms, he said, in so many words. His leadership built the cooperative that Aaron describes as de-fragmenting the buffer of helping organizations trying and tripping over each other to help the less fortunate in Atlanta. 

Open Doors, he names it. Making connections to bring people home. He has been singularly successful at convincing other large property owners that taking a chance on veterans, who have US Military training, sense and strength somewhere inside, is worth it for the property owners. It's a huge waste of time, he says later in a long interview, for non-profits to keep calling every landlord one at a time, hunting for housing for the homeless who want to change and getting turned down. And a huge waste of the people that the Veterans could again become.

He argues for flexibility, qualifying veterans for homes, saying the entire housing industry is set up to not let homeless people back into the world more of us enjoy for five simple and understandable reasons.

  1. Evicted
  2. Criminal 
  3. Bad credit
  4. Substance or mental problems
  5. Low income

Making exceptions, taking cases one at a time, has saved hundreds of Veterans and millions of dollars, he suggests. Apartments get reliable tenants with much of the rent paid by Veterans Administration vouchers. Reliable case workers for each veteran. As the fancy night at the Fox ends I commit to myself to learn more. Before the week is out, I'm with HOPE Atlanta's Outreach Team, hunting with Chokel Taylor for more veterans who might be encouraged to trade life on the streets for a home and a fresh start.

Deldrick Wilson wears a camouflage sunhat. Marcus Terry is a big man whose smile melts the clear knowledge that he'd be able to crush you with one hand. Together they walk a sorry dirt road near Piedmont Road in midtown Atlanta with Chokel Taylor, the formerly homeless Army veteran, who carries his son's picture in his phone. Getting a home helped Chokel get his son back into his life.

I am politely un-invited to walk that dirt road with them. CBS46 photographer Dimitri nods agreement. Nothing wrong with me, just my demographic is not what they need to encourage homeless people, particularly Veterans, to open up to outsiders. So I stay in the van.

They don't go far without some friction. The TV camera provoked one of the dozens of people living anonymously in this informal urban camp ground. The HOPE workers offer meal cards and some fast food.

Thankfully accepted. 

Chokel isn't saying much, I see,  when I look over the recordings later. Perhaps this episode brings up painful memories. A man on a bicycle rides past, and begins a fresh start.

Joseph, with long blonde hair and a bicyclist's fit shape, calls himself the mayor of this camp site and invites us back, me included. It's a long dirt road. Established tents mark off living sites near the CSX Railroad Tracks. 

Newcomers forced away from other encampments by construction on Cheshire Bridge Road find places to spend the night among the tents and under the interstate bridge. I heard and saw evidence of some violence, some vandalism, lots of pan handling. Joseph says many of his neighbors will stay until true cold weather comes. Then they'll commit crimes to be arrested and stay the winter in the hospital, in jail or prison,  getting clean when spring warms Atlanta and they can return to the woods. Maybe there's truth in this story. If so, the cost for medicine and jail far outspends the military-subsidized apartment offered to veterans. 

Back in the newsroom I struggle to make the pieces of glamor and grit fit into a sensible story. Chokel Taylor and his success recovering his life and his son are the bright shining center of the story. But the next chapter opens with Joseph and his choices. I hear most homeless vets are about 50-years-old. If they stay on the streets, don't get a life back now, what happens as they get older? 

Perhaps the best real promise is in the large scale efforts of Aaron Goldman and his real estate colleagues around the country. There are more vouchers out there, say HUD and VA leaders. Perhaps stories like this one will help encourage people to say yes to using them.

Copyright 2016 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved. 

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