MARTA will arrest a homeless person for evading a $2.50 fare while the city of Atlanta returns $10 million in unspent housing supports.
I had lunch with a young woman who called herself Christian, an hour after MARTA police arrested her for turnstile jumping at Five Points. Again.
Yesterday morning, I was walking out of Five Points to go watch nothing happen during jury selection at the YSL trial, when I stumbled upon three MARTA cops snagging people who squeezed through the turnstiles without a Breeze Card. They had one person up against the wall when they called Christian over.
Christian wore mismatched socks with her Crocs. She had a blanket, and a backpack, and wore two hoodie layers with a black skull cap tight on her head.
She said she didn’t have a card, but had money. She tried to explain how the bus driver told her where to go. Gingerly, she pulled a wad of bills out of her left sweatshirt pocket and held it up as an offering, to be admonished about reaching into her pockets. Christian seemed confused, and scared, and nonthreatening. She begged not to be arrested.
One of the cops noticed the plastic white Grady patient wristband on her right wrist. He took a picture of it. He didn’t ask her what she was doing at the hospital. He didn’t ask her if she was homeless. Just cuffs, matter-of-fact, pausing only to tell me I couldn’t take a picture.
If he had persisted with that, there would have been an argument. I will gleefully submit to an arrest for taking a photograph of a cop in a public place. I need to renovate my kitchen.
Atlanta’s Policing Alternatives and Diversion program is tailor made for cases like Christian’s, and indeed, they connected with her briefly on the street an hour or so after her encounter with transit cops. I spotted her again just as their car pulled up across the street on Peachtree at Five Points. They handed her a hygiene kit and a sandwich, which she immediately gave away to two other homeless men.
I took her to lunch. (And thank you, readers: you bought it for her.)
Christian, 28, gets arrested a lot, and it is almost always over something petty. One day, she might get a criminal trespassing warning from Wal-Mart for drinking a pint of milk in line before paying for it. In another case, it’s getting arrested for sleeping in the wrong place outside. MARTA cops held her just long enough to process her for a ticket and a court date, which she may or may not remember to attend.
Christian hurt her head six years ago, then again two years ago, she said. Poor impulse control, short term memory problems, homelessness, petty arrests; Christian’s general geniality is paired with traumatic brain injury.
“People care, but it takes time to help people,” she said over hookah up the street. “I’m just really tired. I just want to find a place to rest.”
She’s lost her ID, and her debit cards and her phone more than once. She said she owns a car and can’t find it. She needs stability for rehabilitation, and that’s probably not going to happen without housing. I made sure she had contact information for the folks at diversion and a ride, and then I sat though testimony at City Hall about Atlanta returning $10 million to the federal government in unspent housing funds.
The juxtaposition of these two realities says a lot.
Cersi Bunnell, a housing manager, described $286,000 in delinquencies in her properties, and how impossible it had been for her residents to connect with case workers at the United Way and other agencies for relief.
“Clearly, there’s a need for the funds,” she said. “Every year on August 31, the United Way stops accepting applications, telling landlords that they don’t have any more money.”
Only, this year, there was money.
The full story is complex. Atlanta put its COVID relief money in the hands of local agencies that managed to spend its tranches of cash: about $50 million. The city got creative in some ways, leasing entire hotels to manage the transition process out of homelessness for some people.
The state of Georgia, on the other hand, failed almost completely. In March, the federal government clawed back $21 million of Georgia’s unspent allocation and handed it to Atlanta, with a few months to spend it solving housing problems. And it was simply too much, too fast for United Way and other agencies to legally allocate on short notice. They distributed $11 million of it before the December 31 deadline set by federal law.
It’s not the first time Atlanta has had to send money back to the federal government like this. Atlanta lost 60 percent of its HOPWA funding for HIV relief housing in 2019 over similar problems.
“It’s a lack of bodies to handle the overflow,” said Shabreka Polk, speaking to the city council yesterday. Polk lost her housing and is crashing with family — six in a three-bedroom with parents — while trying to figure things out. “To hear that you’re going to send $10 million back when we have so many people on the streets. I can’t … I can’t express just how much anguish this process has put me through. It’s been hard enough through the pandemic … the cost of everything has gone up. I’m still trying to find my footing. We really need you to find a way to keep this money and put the right people in charge. We need to breathe again.”
Mayor Andre Dickens named a new policy team this morning to look at Atlanta’s inequality problem, which will be led by Courtney English, former chairman of Atlanta Public Schools and an advisor to the mayor.
“The new office of the Chief Policy Officer will help ensure that every Atlanta resident can thrive by attacking entrenched racial and socioeconomic equity gaps at their roots,” Dickens said in a release. “The formation of this team will for the first time break down traditional organizational silos to marshal these efforts within a single more nimble, collaborative structure devoted to achieving the administration’s most critical goals.”
I would follow the work of this new office … but as readers of this newsletter may recall, the activities of such organizations are not subject to open records or open meetings laws.
Five advisors will work in this group.
Janean Lewis, a former APS social studies coordinator and spokesperson will advise on youth and education. David Edwards, who is a former CEO of Purpose Built Communities and a director at the Center for Urban Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology — an organization I have had surprisingly little contact with despite being a Georgia Tech MBA — is on neighborhoods.
Joshua Humphries, one of city hall’s legitimate housing policy nerds and Atlanta’s Director of Housing and Community Development, will be the group’s housing advisor. Megan Sparks, who helped run Leadership Atlanta for years and is a community engagement expert, will manage strategic partnerships and initiatives … because she knows everyone in town. And Dr. Jodi Merriday, a former APS ombudsman, is “ombudsman of neighborhoods,” which I interpret as being the designated sacrificial offering to neighborhood planning unit boards when this group actually tries to do something useful to reduce inequality like building affordable housing.
One might assume that a system that will arrest a destitute, desperately-ill homeless woman for evading a $2.50 fare that she was prepared to pay while leaving $10 million on the table in housing crisis money might be something this group should look at.
I note in passing that Transit Equity Day - Rosa Parks’ birthday - was Saturday. MARTA made a note of it too.
A side note- I’m here for your investigation and insight. But your writing style is a joy as well. Truly had me laughing with your remark about a kitchen renovation. Thank you as always for your relentless curiosity and compassion.
Great post, thank you. Having said that, I nonetheless think that reducing lawlessness on MARTA trains and stations is important to cultivating a widespread confidence that MARTA represents safe transit. As always, consistent enforcement is much more important than harsh punishment.