New Atlanta, Fulton program aims to divert homeless people from jail

Moki Macias is acutely aware of the Atlanta jail.

She can see it from the window of her new office. Her goal is to keep people out of it.

Macias is the leader of a two-year pilot program that seeks to offer alternatives for people who are arrested again and again and again for crimes of poverty, or those that stem from addiction or mental health issues.

The Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, sponsored by the city and Fulton County, with additional funding from outside groups, will not be able to serve every homeless person arrested for public urination, or every addict who engages in sex work to pay for the next hit.

Macias and others think it’s time to try something different for people who are repeatedly arrested for the same crime. She has examples of people who have been arrested 20 times, some as many as 40. Instead of taking them back to jail, she hopes to get them into rehab or off the streets.

Over two years, the $2.2 million pilot program seeks to help 150 people who are committing crimes of poverty and homelessness. It aims to help people who would ordinarily fall through the cracks, cycling through the justice system, and take them out of the system entirely.

“This is an opportunity to change the culture of the city as a whole,” Macias said. “We’re improving the quality of life for people who have been told to simply disappear.”

Atlanta’s program is modeled, in part, on those in Seattle; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Albany, New York; and Fayetteville, North Carolina. In those cities, evaluations show a 60 percent reduction in recidivism, according to the Racial Justice Action Center.

Erika Shields, the Atlanta police chief, said officers who kept seeing the same people committing the same low-level crimes agreed that continuing to arrest perpetrators was not working. People who would be eligible for the program are committing crimes that stem from other needs, Shields said.

“They’re really not what jails are designed for,” she said.

The initiative was not always so altruistic. In 2013, Atlanta police and Mayor Kasim Reed supported a proposal that would have banished convicted prostitutes and their johns from certain areas of the city where sex work and drug sales were particularly problematic.

The banishment proposal provoked an outcry, particularly from members of the city’s transgender community, who felt targeted. Simaya Turner, who is now the operations and training coordinator for the pilot, said it seemed like Atlanta’s leaders did not recognize the value of “some of the people who helped make Atlanta beautiful.”

The backlash led to the conversations that created the pre-arrest diversion program.

The banishment proposal “was more of the same failed approach,” said Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, a social justice organization that was involved in the creation of the pre-arrest diversion plan.

“We need solutions, not punishment,” said Kwanza Hall, an Atlanta city councilman running for mayor who represents some of the neighborhoods in the program. “We could keep arresting them, or we could find another place to take them.”

In addition to reducing recidivism and improving opportunities for people, the program saves money by keeping people out of jail. That means there are more beds available for violent offenders.

That’s a key point of interest for John Eaves, the Fulton County commission chairman who is also one of several candidates running for mayor. Eaves has been championing programs that would better treat inmates with mental health issues, as well as reduce the jail population.

“There are some examples where people don’t need to be in jail. They don’t even need to be arrested,” Eaves said.

Additionally, it is intended to improve the quality of life — not just for participants, but for the Midtown, Downtown and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods that are part of the program.

Success could mean less antagonism between homeless people and shop owners or police, fewer instances of panhandling in front of stores, for example, or used condoms on the street, Bervera said.

Morehouse and Emory will conduct studies throughout the life of the program, though it may take some time to determine whether it is a success.

“We don’t know how it’s going to work,” said Shields, the police chief. “We don’t want to tout the first win. There will be failures.”

Peer support, like that from Robby Ivy, is key to the program. Ivy, who will go to the scene to evaluate potential participants in the program, will determine whether people could benefit from medical care, mental health counseling, access to housing or anything else that is tied to the reason behind their crimes. A former addict and sex worker, Ivy said she understands the choices people make to survive.

In her case, she said, the seed for getting help was planted long before she actually made a change.

“Sometimes, people just need to know you care,” she said. “Here’s somebody saying, ‘Look, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ …We’ve needed this for so long.”

The AJC's Arielle Kass keeps you updated on the latest happenings in Fulton County government and politics. You'll find more on, including these stories:

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