More Links in News & Events

Alan Harris: Work on Behalf of City's Homeless Mentally Ill - His 17-Year Crusade

By John Head

Advocates come from different places in life, for various reasons, and offer distinctive approaches - but true dedication becomes commonplace in a deeply personal field of service.

Sitting in his downtown Atlanta office 17 years ago,Alan Harris found himself having some fairly common midlife reflections."I was working for the Social Security Administration," Harris says."Sitting in my office on the 19th floor of the 101 Marietta Street tower, looking outat Stone Mountain, I thought, 'There's got to be more to lifethan playing tennis and working.' "
What he did next was not so common.

"I decided to get out and do something to help people," says Harris,69.
Ever since, Harris has devoted his time and energy to helping homeless people,specifically those who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. They makeup as much as a third of the population haunting the city's streets, alleys,underpasses, soup kitchens and shelters, Harris says. And getting mental healthcare or substance abuse treatment for them has become his life calling.

Harris and his wife Nancy, 52, run Alpha House at 567 Courtland Ave. on the edge ofdowntown. At the building, provided by North Avenue Presbyterian Church,homeless people can get coffee and a bite to eat, along with referrals toadvocates and agencies that might help them. Everybody on staff, including the Harrises, serves as unpaid volunteers. Harris also helpedfound the Coalition for the Homeless Mentally Ill, an advocacy group.
"What we want to do is focus on the underlying causes of homelessness,which are without doubt addiction and mental illness," Harris says,sitting at the kitchen table of Alpha House. "The system puts too manydemands on people who are mentally ill and have no friends or family to supportthem. There isn't a single shelter in Atlanta dedicated tohomeless men or women who are mentally ill."

Over the past 15 years, estimates of homeless people in metro Atlanta have ranged from3,000 to 40,000. The most widely cited figure is 11,000, which Research Atlantacame up with in 1997. Estimates of how many of the homeless have serious mentalillnesses are similarly varied. According to the ResearchAtlanta study, about 27 percent of the metro area's homeless need mental healthtreatment. Some say that percentage is too low.

Homelessness itself is so vexing a problem that many people join the effort tofind solutions only to throw up their hands and declare the problemintractable. Yet Harris has dedicated the past 17 years to the cause, afterhaving his epiphany in a glass tower.

When asked what keeps him involved, Harris thinks for a moment.

"It's an expression of my faith as a Christian and as a human being withcompassion for other people," he says finally. "The only way I knowhow to express my faith is to act it out. I'm much better at doing rather thanpreaching."

He's a soft-spoken man, but he uses strong words when he describes the plightof the homeless with mental illnesses and what he sees as a failure toadequately address the problem, even by advocates for the homeless.

"My main concern is the people who wander the street," Harris says."They're time bombs, and if they're not dangerous to others, they sufferall their lives without intervention."
Some mental health experts say progress is being made.

"We're excited because we already have started providing some services athomeless shelters, like the women's day shelter, where we have a therapist orsocial worker go to identify people with mental disorders and arrangefor them to receive services," says Dr. Keith Wood, director of GradyHealth Systems' mental health center.

The homeless also receive mental health care through other outreach efforts,such as St. JosephHospital's Mercy Mobile,which visits shelters, soup kitchens and the streets in search of people whoneed treatment. Still, Wood adds, "what's daunting about it is that wehave such a demand in terms of numbers."

Such daunting work tends to attract people whose passion for the cause can bemisunderstood --- people like Alan Harris.

"He's a motor to help us make services better and simpler," Woodsays. "But sometimes that can come across as if he's saying, 'Nobody elseis doing it but me.' . . . I don't think he's really saying that."

But if some see him as something of a zealot, Harris doesn't shy away from theimage.
"In many ways I'm ordinary, not unique," he says. "Otherthan my zeal for the homeless mentally ill."

©2001 The Journal-Constitution. Reprinted with permission fromThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Further reproduction, retransmission,or distribution of these materials without the prior written consent of TheAtlanta Journal-Constitution, and any copyright holder identified in thematerial's copyright notice, is prohibited.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top