By Gabe Gutierrez, Correspondent, NBC News
ATLANTA -- It's hard to get an exact count, but on any given night, there are more than half a million homeless people in the U.S.
Now, a campaign to get them into permanent housing is growing.
For the first time in four years, 48-year-old Michael Couch has a place to call home.
"I hit bottom in Tampa, Florida, when I was down there living on the street,” said Couch, a former homeless veteran who now lives in the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain.
He served in the Army during the '80s but later turned to alcohol.
"[I] just went downhill,” remembered Couch. “Can't really understand the reasons why to this day."
After a divorce and lost job, he became one of this country’s chronically homeless. Local agencies use federal grants to find them permanent housing, but often the screening process can drag on for as much as a year.
So in 2010, a nonprofit group launched a campaign called 100,000 Homes – a movement to house the homeless, in part by cutting red tape from the housing voucher process.
That process can include more than 50 steps and several different agencies. Now, many of those agencies are consolidating those steps, reducing the wait time to two months or less.
The campaign says it’s spread to more than 200 communities and helped house more than 59,000 people.
Dwight Fitzgerald, 61, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran who worked as a fueling specialist, said he developed an addiction to heroin while overseas -- and eventually left the military.
"The toughest part is the sickness and not having the funds to go get [the drugs]," he said. "It makes you go out and do things you normally wouldn't do."
After years in jail, he's trying to bounce back. The 100,000 Homes campaign has helped him secure an apartment in Stone Mountain, the same area where Couch lives.
"Nobody deserves to be homeless," he said. "The U.S. is supposed to be the most powerful and richest country in the world and to see people living in the streets, eating out of garbage cans ... I just don't understand why these things happen."
What is the nonprofit's biggest challenge?
"I think it's this idea that we can't end homelessness,” said Jake Maguire, who works for Community Solutions, the group behind the campaign, which is funded by private donations.
Rather than simply focusing on charity, the campaign says it's aiming for long-term solutions. Not only is there a shortage of affordable housing, but the government systems that place people in that housing remain slow and complicated.
"We're really trying to take rigorous data-driven business models and try to bring them into the nonprofit sector," Maguire said.
In the past, he said, many communities offered multiple services for the homeless, but those organizations didn't communicate with one another and often bounced people around without actually housing them.
Maguire said the 100,000 Homes initiative has streamlined the process.
In Atlanta, the mayor said it has not only helped the homeless but saved tax dollars.
“When we have all of the parties at the table at the same time around the same individual, they're all on notice,” said Mayor Kasim Reed. “So that really does reduce the amount of duplication."
As for Michael Couch, he’s heading back to school, searching for a new job and finally spending time with his daughter – and new granddaughter – at home.
"It's nice,” he said, “to have a roof over your head.”
To learn more about 100,000 Homes, please visit their website.
First published July 20 2013, 10:31 AM